Not too long ago, a dozen years or so, the talk was that Ralph Fiennes just might be the best actor of his generation, gliding effortlessly from stage to screen, embodying fully and frighteningly characters ranging from the horrid Nazi commandant in Schindler’s List to the debased American intellectual in Quiz Show. But the biz is fickle and, since then, that talk has diminished, even if his talents have not. These days, the putative best actor of his generation is left, along with half the British thespian community, to vie for the crown of best actor in the Harry Potter saga. Things change.
And so has Fiennes. Pushing 50 now, clad in black shirt and blue jeans, sporting a full beard with long thinning hair combed straight back, he appears to have lost a fair chunk of his matinee-idol looks, perhaps to encroaching age or maybe just to his latest role – as Prospero in a production of The Tempest on London’s West End. “I had a dispensation of two nights off,” he says, “But I have to be back at work tomorrow.” The dispensation has brought him to Toronto (we are speaking last fall during the Toronto International Film Festival) to promote another change in his status: his debut as a film director. Yes, like many before him, the Oliviers and Branaghs and Eastwoods and Redfords, he’s finally jumped behind the camera, while still starring in front of it.
His choice of material is both surprising and not. It’s Shakespeare inevitably, but Coriolanus is hardly the most celebrated part of the canon. Not that the play lacks fans. T.S. Eliot preferred it to Hamlet, and Cole Porter clearly enjoyed its rhyming potential ( “If she says your behaviour is heinous/ Kick her right in the Coriolanus”). Fiennes, naturally, had loftier motives for the choice: “In the popular Shakespeares like Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet or Midsummer Night’s Dream, we know where to put our sympathies, but here we don’t. Quite deliberately, we’re not meant to know who to be rooting for, and I love that. I find it dramatically thrilling that there’s this complicated figure who doesn’t let us in.”
Just to brush up your Shakespeare, that title figure is a Roman general bred in the patrician class who, after a successful military campaign, is wooed into politics. There, he refuses to pander to the people or their wishes, a proud lapse that leads to his expulsion and later to his betrayal of Rome. In Fiennes’s rapid-fire version, shot in Belgrade, the text is stripped down and the setting is contemporary. With a shaved head and battle fatigues, his Coriolanus brandishes an automatic pistol in one hand and a cellphone in the other, while cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (who worked with Fiennes in The Hurt Locker) turns the Bard’s action scenes into vicious urban warfare.
Why modernize the play so aggressively? Two reasons, the first pragmatic and the second aesthetic: (1) “Frankly, it was easier to finance that way,” and (2) “I kept seeing images in the newspaper that were clearly Coriolanus, like Milosevic’s coffin being fork-lifted from The Hague, or endless images out of Iraq.”
Consequently, in this adaptation, TV screens abound, with the media used as the vox populi that the general, in his patrician pride, refuses to appease. Whatever the other changes in his appearance, Fiennes’s eyes remain as piercingly blue as ever, and here they twinkle with delight: “I’m afraid I like his contempt of the populist media. There’s something in me that finds the endless shape-shifting of the media slightly repugnant, the way we’re all kept in this constant noise. So I took a kind of pleasure in the fact that Coriolanus has complete contempt for that. For example, when he says with disdain, ‘Let them wash their faces and keep their teeth clean,’ I always laugh at that.”
Perhaps he comes by that sympathy honestly, given his own distant patrician background – Fiennes is an eighth cousin to the Prince of Wales. He’s also a third cousin to the explorer Ranulph Fiennes, although (like his siblings Joseph and Martha) his adventures are confined to the world of art. Oh, and amour too. His first marriage, to actress Alex Kingston, ended, as did a long-term relationship with actress Francesca Annis, not to mention (if press reports are to be believed) a rather shorter one with a flight attendant on board a Qantas flight. In his personal life, allegedly, those blues eyes are prone to roving.
But professionally, on the screen at least, what counts is his face, and its remarkable ability to register the extremes of brutish strength or utter fragility, sometimes simultaneously. He can look huge and menacing ( Schindler’s List, In Bruges, Strange Days); he can look diminutive and frail ( The Constant Gardener, The Reader, Oscar and Lucinda); and he can look a heart-rending combination of the two ( The English Patient, Spider, Sunshine).
Coriolanus demands a lot of the brute but also, at the climax, a crucial element of the fragile, where Fiennes relies heavily on the movie actor’s sharpest tool: the close-up. This helped to solve a problem that defeated him on stage: “I don’t think I quite pulled off the role on stage, because he’s so strong in his views, with so many angry speeches, that I’m afraid there was a tendency to stridency in my performance. But here I could modulate it with the close-up.”
Such are the benefits of film, and of film directing. His major influence, behind the camera anyway, was another candidate for best actor of his generation: “Olivier made a very profound impression on me. When I was very young, the first movie I saw was Bambi, and the second was Henry V.” He laughs, and so do I, openly at his remark but, more covertly, at his physical posture while delivering the remark. In conversation, Fiennes has a way of always looking up from beneath a slightly tilted head, suddenly fixing you with a glance that appears at once as defiant as a Tudor king and, yes, as shy as Bambi.
He continues: “Also, Olivier’s filming of Hamlet remains daring and cinematic. Like him, I would like to direct again, but not Shakespeare the next time. Maybe later, though. You know, I think if he were working today, Shakespeare would be writing amazing screenplays, because he’s continually cutting in his plays from one place to the next. What he does with visual imagery when he has people describing things, he’d be writing descriptive scenes instead. How do we know, really, yet it’s a nice idea to ponder.”
It is, but the time for pondering is over. He’s late. An airplane awaits (if not a flight attendant) and Prospero beckons an ocean away – let our indulgence set him free.