“I like to play tortured souls with a sense of purpose,” Ralph Fiennes told The Independent in 2003. What was true then remains true now, more than ten years later. Fiennes is an actor gifted at depicting inner torment, especially when it comes to matters of the heart.
The tormented lover is an archetype of fraught romance found in poetry, literature, and cinema. Fiennes has played many men who fit this archetype; men who come undone because of the intensity of their romantic attachments. The tormented lover is a figure who travels a divergent emotional terrain: he is cool, aloof, and passionately fired by his desires, seemingly without feeling and yet made vulnerable by an excess of it. And Fiennes transmits the requisite fire and ice in equal parts.
Fiennes’ first exploration of this screen identity was as Heathcliff, for whom love is an all-consuming force of nature, in Peter Kosminsky’s Wuthering Heights (1992). As Heathcliff, Fiennes expressed romantic passion alongside obsessiveness and cruelty. In The End of the Affair (1999), he was Maurice Bendrix, “the other man”, blistering with jealousy. But as the tender, patient Justin Quayle in The Constant Gardener (2005), Fiennes was a loyal husband, harrowed by his wife’s death and humbled by the enormity of his love for her. Most recently, as Harry Hawkes in Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash (2015), Fiennes was a restless hedonist, determined to take back the woman he still loves; his desire disruptive and destructive.
Emerging in the middle of these roles is Fiennes’ definitive performance of tortured romance as Count László de Almásy in Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient (1996). Almásy was a showcase for Fiennes’ fierce passion and controlled melancholy, allowing him to do what he does best — smoulder, brood, and mine a dark landscape of human behaviour. Fiennes is unafraid to delve deep into murky moral spaces. For all his romantic appeal, Almásy is often cruel and callous. But Fiennes’ performance keeps us on side, making it clear that love brings Almásy to life and losing it is akin to death.
Fiennes’ magnetic blue-grey eyes are a major source of his power as an actor. His eyes convey everything, from lust to grief. In more villainous roles, they create a constant sense of unease: the thing we focus on, as if the rest of his face were a smudge. As Voldemort in the Harry Potter films, Fiennes’ face is essentially emptied of expression, a blank canvas from which his piercing eyes transfixed those under his gaze. As Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List (1992), Fiennes is more contained yet no less unsettling. When he terrorises his Jewish housekeeper, it’s the subtle shifts in his eyes, moving between sympathy and repulsion, that highlight his slippery menace.
In The English Patient, Fiennes’ eyes are predominantly haunted. Almásy is deeply troubled by memories of Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), the woman he loved and lost in the North African desert. Almásy is literally burnt by love. He’s suffered horrific injuries in a fiery plane crash while attempting to save her. When we first meet him he is living out his final days in an abandoned Italian monastery at the end of the Second World War, his dreadful physical scars a daily, visible reminder of his hidden, emotional wounds.
In flashbacks, Almásy recalls their affair before the war. We see desire spark while he watches Katharine from a distance, across the desert sands and across crowded rooms. He isn’t expressive: by his own admission, he’s “rusty at social graces”. Looking is initially all he can do — she “belongs” to another man, her new husband Geoffrey (Colin Firth). But this doesn’t temper Almásy’s pursuit. If anything, it intensifies it.
Stillness and silence define Fiennes’ performance in the early stages of Almásy’s lust. He uses his eyes to show Katharine (and in turn the audience) what’s burning inside him. We watch Almásy watching Katharine with both longing and an awareness of the space between them. Fiennes looks at her with eyes that barely waver; simultaneously cool and inflamed. He is at his most erotically suggestive when he gazes across the campfire at Katharine, who is entertaining the group with a tale from Herodotus. She shudders under the force of his eyes — just like the Queen of Lydia did when she caught Gyges watching her undress from the shadows of her room.
If Almásy’s stares unequivocally reveal fire and passion, his attempts to talk to Katharine are more perplexing in their intent. He comes across as aloof and disengaged. “There’s no need … I should feel obliged,” he tells her when she offers to paste her pictures from the Cave of Swimmers into his book. There is no yearning here, only clipped, measured disdain, that tells her that her kindness is unnecessary. The coolness of this statement keeps Katharine at a distance, for now, but will later reveal itself as part of Almásy’s armour of self-protection.
Words fail Almásy; their brutal politeness often in conflict with the passion of his physicality. This tension is evident when he and Katharine dance together in a chic Cairo hotel. Almásy has little to say, but his eyes betray him. He ignores Katharine’s questions and just keeps looking at her. She’s unsettled because he doesn’t look away and barely blinks, like a panther fixed on his prey. It’s a desire expressed so intensely it threatens to burn through everyone who gets in his way.
As Almásy softens to the possibility that his feelings are returned, he reveals a previously unseen vulnerability and sensitivity with his words. Fiennes locates the warmth sandwiched between the extremes of Almásy’s personality. During the sandstorm that traps him and Katharine in a car alone, Almásy whispers seductively, “Let me tell you about winds,” his fingers lingering over her hair. His gentle, calming words are now an invitation, a provocation for Katharine to come closer, where once their coldness pushed her away.
But this middle ground implodes almost immediately. Almásy knows that the chance of a happy ending between he and Katharine is almost impossible with Geoffrey in the picture. After they make love for the first time, the darkness seems to lift. Almásy smiles and sings in the bathtub, brought to life by love. But as he leans into Katharine’s embrace, allowing her to envelop him, he also pushes her away with his speech. Protecting himself, he tells her, “When you leave, you should forget about me.”
Their consummation of love leads to a state of being consumed by love. Almásy’s passion literally brings him to his knees when Katharine first comes to him. From that first moment when he desperately rips at her dress, he wants Katharine with him all the time. But as the affair proceeds, Katharine feels torn up about deceiving Geoffrey; as the other man, Almásy is eaten by jealousy.
Almásy’s jealous hunger for Katharine is initially sensual and erotic. “I can still taste you. I’m trying to write with your taste in my mouth,” he tells her during Christmas celebrations, as he watches her on the fringes of the party. It’s the film’s sexiest line, articulating his desire to fuse her body with his. Finally, Almásy’s words and actions are in perfect accord. He flames Katharine’s desire, drawing her towards him. And it works. They make love while barely concealed from the eyes of others, including Geoffrey.
Losing Katharine twists Almásy’s desire into something more suffocating and corrosive. When she ends their affair, words fail him again. He arrives late and drunk to the expedition party’s farewell dinner. His need to possess her bubbles up into jealousy as he watches her dance with another man. Almásy stalks Katharine, circling her and forcing her into a corner where he spits cruel accusations. His words are vicious, but his body betrays his true feelings, as he tenderly touches her back. Fiennes moderates Almásy’s darkness to reveal vulnerability and an enormous emotional void. His eyes are mournful, and we understand he’s lashing out at her to save himself.
But Katharine’s death proves Almásy’s greatest torment because of the role he believes he played in it. In their final moments together, as he carries her to shelter in the Cave of Swimmers, Katharine reveals her confusion about his contradictory behaviour, wondering aloud why he hated her. She says she always loved him and we see this cause him to break down, tears revealing what his words have not. Inside the cave he is able to be vulnerable again, explaining with tenderness, “Every night, I cut out my heart. But in the morning, it was full again.” Yet we never hear him say “I love you” to her.
Once again, it’s Almásy actions that say what his words can’t and reveal his love and the devastation of its loss. His body endures torture to return to the cave, to keep his promise to Katharine that he will come back for her, that he will never leave her. As war erupts, and the desert is carved into nationalistic pieces, Almásy concedes loyalty to no country — neither the English nor the Nazis, to whom he willingly gives his maps — only to Katharine and to the memory of their love. As Almásy reconstructs the fragments of his love, Fiennes simply lies there, barely moving. His face is stiffened scar tissue and emptied of expression, but it his eyes, as always, that capture us and let us in; eyes that are melancholy mirrors to the wounds of love.