Defining Moments: Ralph Fiennes

Ralph Fiennes is arguably one of the finest British acting talents at our disposal. A RADA graduate, and noted Shakespearean interpreter, Fiennes found his first taste of success on stage at the Royal National Theatre, and has been an acclaimed star of both stage and screen ever since. Though renowned for his undoubtable aptitude for playing wickedly villainous or strait-jacketed hierarchical roles, Fiennes is an actor that refuses to be held in a singular regard. His surprising comic timing and talent for embracing warmer characters,came through beautifully in his most recent BAFTA nominated portrayal of Gustave H. in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. In this feature, I will be looking at five of the most acclaimed and brilliant performances that define his glittering career in the world of film.

Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List (1993)


In Steven Spielberg’s epic black and white Holocaust drama, based on the life of Oskar Schindler – a German businessman who saved the lives of more than a thousand Jews by employing and hiding them in his factory – Fiennes plays the role of despicable SS officer Amon Goeth. Often credited as one of the most prolific villains in cinematic history, Fiennes’ portrayal of Goeth is incredibly nuanced; balancing his complete lack of empathy, with an intense predatory deviousness. Fiennes put on 28 pounds for the role, and when in costume, looked so alike the real Goeth, that he made a visiting survivor of the events tremble with fear upon meeting him. Fiennes was Oscar-nominated for his performance, but lost out to Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive – He did however win a BAFTA. Below is one of the most horrifying scenes in the film, in which the megalomaniac Goeth nonchalantly targets and shoots random Jews in the camp, from his balcony, as if it were sport.

Count Almasy in The English Patient (1996)

English-PatientArguably one of his most critically acclaimed roles, garnering both Oscar and BAFTA nominations for performance, Fiennes played the part of Count Laszlo Almasy in The English Patient, based on Michael Ondaatje’s novel of the same name. We meet Almasy in his older form, where he is a critically burnt man, cared for in a monastery in War-torn Italy. After being accused of siding with the Germans by a vengeful Canadian Intelligence operative who plots to kill him, Almasy recants his story – which is one of romance and betrayal – in an effort to prove his innocence. His affair with Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) is portrayed powerfully by the two leads, and Fiennes gives a dual-performance that conveys the best of his acting ability. In the clip below – one that features towards the end of the film – Almasy and Katherine share a moment of quiet reflection before he leaves to get the medical supplies that she needs to survive. It is a clip that shows Fiennes’ propensity for dominating even the slightest of moments on screen and also his ability to play the romantic lead.

Francis Dolarhyde in Red Dragon (2002)

reddragon3In this prequel to The Silence of the Lambs,  Fiennes plays Francis Dolarhyde – a serial killer, known as ‘The Tooth Fairy’, who murders whole families and commits brutal acts on women during sequential full moons. Dolarhyde has an interesting pathology, brought about after years of abuse from his sadistic Grandmother; he is obsessed with a William Blake painting entitled ‘The Great Red Dragon and the Woman clothed in Sun’. In his psychosis, he believes that his acts of killing bring him closer to becoming ‘The Dragon’ in the painting. This is not a performance, wrapped entirely in the horror and acts of unspeakable evil and madness however. Dolarhyde’s obsession with the painting causes him to have a split personality – While ‘The Dragon’ in him lusts for blood, there is a gentler, more human side to him, that allows him to fall in love with a blind co-worker called Reba McClane. Fiennes’ portrayal is therefore one of frustration, as he wrestles the opposing traits of the character. Though this is predominantly a Hannibal Lecter film, Fiennes holds his own and proves to be just as frightening as the infamous Cannibal. Such intimidating malice is displayed in this clip, in which Dolarhyde berates reporter Freddie Lounds (played by the late Philip Seymour-Hoffman) for his disparaging news stories. The clip contains images that some may find disturbing.

Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter (2005-2011)

Lord_VoldemortFor the first three cinematic instalments of J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise, Lord Voldemort was an ethereal being, threatening to Harry only through wicked whispers and the manipulation of others. However in The Goblet of Fire, The Dark Lord is reincarnated in physical form and played with fierce intensity by Fiennes. The chilling appearance of Voldemort is one of the key components of Fiennes’ performance – the lack of human features in a face that much more resembles that of a reptile, makes the character feel repulsively evil. The morbid pallor of his skin and his claw like nails only intensifying his villainy further. But the way Fiennes tiptoes through his dialogue, gently taunting our heroes before suddenly bursting into moments of vicious, blood-curdling rage is what makes him so antagonising and intriguing to watch. His consistent employment of this finely tuned treading between extreme emotions throughout the series, is truly awe-inspiring stuff.

Monsieur Gustave H. in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

timthumbWes Anderson’s distinctively quirky comedy, The Grand Budapest Hotel, provided Fiennes with a rare opportunity to play something other than the villain or the cold straight-faced Englishman. In the film he leads the ensemble cast as renowned Concierge of the eponymous hotel, Monsieur Gustave H – a smart, cultured and sophisticated man who takes great pride in the reputation of his hotel. He is also something of a flirt – charming many of the older ladies that pass through the hotel. When one of them dies suddenly, and he is accused of murder by her jealous son, he must work with his lobby boy, Zero to solve the mystery and prove his innocence. Fiennes gives a performance that highlights his immense aptitude for comedy in both his timing and the unshakably straight face he keeps while performing some really rather naughty (but intensely memorable) lines. The air of exuberance (which smells, I imagine like Gustave’s favourite perfume; ‘L’air du Panache‘) that Fiennes holds throughout the film is truly exquisite, and fully deserving of the BAFTA nomination he has received this week.

Other Notable Performances include: The Constant Gardener, In Bruges and Coriolanus

Words by Annie

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