Nationality: British. Born: Suffolk, 22 December 1962; brother of the director Martha Fiennes, the actor Joseph Fiennes, the musician Magnus Fiennes, and the producer Sophie Fiennes. Family: Married the actress Alex Kingston, 1993 (divorced 1997). Education: Attended Bishop Woodsworth Boys' School; Chelsea College of Art & Design; was graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London. Career: Joined the National Theatre, London, 1987; joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, and became a leading actor there, 1989; appeared in the TV mini-series Prime Suspect, 1991; earned international acclaim for his role in Schindler's List, 1993; made his American stage debut in Hamlet, 1995. Awards: Best Supporting Actor British Academy Award, National Society of Film Critics Best Supporting Actor, New York Film Critics Circle Best Supporting Actor, Chicago Film Critics Association Best Supporting Actor, London Critics Circle British Actor of the Year, Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe, for Schindler's List, 1993; Best Actor Tony Award, for Hamlet, 1995; Best Actor European Film Awards, for Sunshine, 1999. Agent: Bryan Lourd, Creative Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, CA 90212, U.S.A.
Films as Actor:
A Dangerous Man: Lawrence after Arabia (Menaul—for TV) (as T. E. Lawrence)
Wuthering Heights (Kosminsky—for TV) (as Heathcliff)
Schindler's List (Spielberg) (as Amon Goeth); The Baby of Macon (Greenaway) (as the Bishop's son); The Cormorant (Markham—for TV) (as John Talbot)
Quiz Show (Redford) (as Charles Van Doren)
Strange Days (Bigelow) (as Lenny Nero)
The English Patient (Minghella) (title role)
Oscar and Lucinda (Armstrong) (as Oscar Hopkins)
The Prince of Egypt (Chapman, Hickner) (as Rameses); The Avengers (Chechik) (John Steed)
Sunshine (Szabó) (as Ignatz Sonnenschein/Sors, Adam Sors, Ivan Sors/Sonnenschein); Onegin (Martha Fiennes) (as Evgeny Onegin (+ exec pr); The Miracle Maker (Hayes, Sokolov—for TV) (as Jesus); The End of the Affair (Jordan) (as Maurice Bendrix)
By FIENNES: articles—
"Self-Made Monster: An Actor's Creation," interview with John Darnton, in New York Times, 14 February 1994.
"A Fiennes Madness," interview with Leslie Bennetts, in Vanity Fair (New York), November 1995.
"Special Reserve," interview with Brian Case, in Time Out (London), 28 February 1996.
"The Patient Englishman," interview with Sarah Lambert, in Time Out (London), 17–31 December 1997.
On FIENNES: books—
Membery, York, Ralph Fiennes: The Unauthorised Biography, Trafalgar Square, 1997.
On FIENNES: articles—
Corliss, Richard, "The Man behind the Monster," in Time (New York), 21 February 1994.
Millea, Holly, "Quiz Kid," in Premiere (New York), September 1994.
Lane, Anthony, "The Play's the Thing," in New Yorker, 17 April 1995.
Koestenbaum, W., "The New Prince of Broadway," in Harper's Bazaar (New York), May 1995.
Fridštejn, Ju., "Odinokij v tolpe," in Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), November 1997.
Ginsberg, M., "Ralph's big gamble," in Los Angeles, November 1997.
Patchett, A., "The man with (at least) two brains," in Gentlemen's Quarterly (New York), July 1998.
Johnson, B.D., "Hungarian Rhapsody," in Macleans (Toronto), 2 November 1998.
* * *
In 1993, Ralph Fiennes burst upon the international film scene with his riveting—and almost picture-stealing—performance as SS Commandant Amon Goeth in Steven Spielberg's Holocaust drama, Schindler's List. Certainly, Goeth was not the first despicably evil Nazi ever depicted on screen—just as Schindler's List was not the first Hollywood film to portray the heroic actions of individuals caught up in the Nazi scourge.
But Fiennes made Goeth far more than the stereotypical stock Nazi villain found in scores of World War II films. His Goeth is a fascinatingly complex personality, a man of subtle, intrinsic evil. At one point in the story, as he is being driven through the Krakow Jewish ghetto, Goeth complains that he is freezing. He has no comment on the humanity around him. It is as if the Jews are non-human beings, incapable of feeling hunger or pain (let alone of being inconvenienced by inclement weather). In his eyes, they already are a mass of cadavers. As the Variety critic so aptly observed, "The extraordinary Fiennes creates an indelible character in Goeth. With paunch hanging out and eyes filled with disgust both for his victims and himself, he's like a minor-league Roman emperor gone sour with excess, a man in whom too much power and debauchery have crushed anything that might once have been good."
While unfamiliar to movie audiences at the release of Schindler's List, Fiennes was a known quantity in the acting world. For several years, he had been impressing London audiences in a variety of roles at the National Theatre and with the Royal Shakespeare Company. His performance as T. E. Lawrence in the television movie A Dangerous Man: Lawrence after Arabia led to Spielberg's casting him in Schindler's List.
In order to display his versatility as an actor and avoid typecasting as clones of Goeth, Fiennes chose for his follow-up screen role an altogether different character. In Robert Redford's Quiz Show, he is Charles Van Doren, clean-cut all-American prince and offspring of a wealthy, renowned intellectual family, who compromises his ideals by cheating when he appears on the television quiz show Twenty-One. If Schindler's List was overly hyped as a Holocaust film, Quiz Show, too, was highly overrated. The film is, in essence, a far-too-obvious exercise in self-righteousness.
But Fiennes's performance transcends the film's faults. His Charles Van Doren is an entirely believable character, as contemplative and compromised as Amon Goeth is psychotic and compromised. If Goeth is the victimizer of others, Van Doren is victimized by his own ingenuousness.
For his next screen role, Fiennes selected a part completely different from Goeth and Van Doren. Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days is an in-your-face combination sci-fi fantasy/mystery/police drama, set in the final days of the year 1999. Fiennes plays Lenny Nero, ex-Los Angeles vice cop who is the dealer of a new and altogether different kind of illegal drug: high-tech, state-of-the-art "virtual reality" tapes, on which are recorded real-life events. Those who "wire-trip" get to re-experience those events. In essence, Lenny—who is described as "the Santa Claus of the subconscious"—peddles pieces of other peoples' lives, with his customers "using the wire" and "getting off on tape."
Lenny also is a schemer who in his own way is strung out, as he lives from one score to the next. The core of the story focuses on what happens when he comes into possession of tapes on which are recorded horrible events, including the rape and murder of a prostitute and the murder of a rap artist who is one of the most powerful and controversial black men in America. Fiennes's performance as Lenny is every bit as impressive as his work in Schindler's List and Quiz Show. It is appropriately edgy, with the actor vividly expressing his character's pain, confusion, and yearning.
Despite his celluloid success, Fiennes remained as much a stage actor as a budding movie star. In 1995, he brought his Hamlet from London to Broadway, earning respectful (and in some cases, superlative) reviews. Wrote John Lahr, "Fiennes radiates an elegance of spirit that rivets the audience with its sense of unspoken mystery. His performance is a stylish event." Added Vincent Canby, "Mr. Fiennes . . . is in command at the Belasco from beginning to end. He's a charismatic stage actor. He has a fine strong voice (and complete control of it) that never becomes monotonously distinctive." Among his other post-Hamlet stage roles have been the lead characters in Chekhov's Ivanov and Shakespeare's Richard II and Coriolanus, all performed in England.Three of Fiennes's subsequent screen roles have been variations of the same character: the genteel malcontent who becomes mired in a complex, unsatisfying romantic relationship. In the highly acclaimed The English Patient, based on Michael Ondaatje's novel, he is a Hungarian-born count who works as a linguist/explorer/map maker; in Onegin, an adaptation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, he plays a St. Petersburg nobleman; in Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, he is a British novelist. The English Patient has Fiennes offering a subtle performance as a character who hides as much as he is able to from those around him. However, in Onegin and The End of the Affair, his performances teeter on listlessness. In The Avengers, the ill-advised update of the fabled 1960s British TV series, he is sorely miscast as suave secret agent John Steed. And in Istvan Szabo's Sunshine, an ambitious but overlong and overwrought multi-generational soap opera, Fiennes takes on three characterizations, all members of a Hungarian-Jewish family. Unfortunately, this tale of love, war, interfamily relationships, and Jewish identity and self-loathing plays like an inferior cut-down of a TV mini-series. Fiennes and his fellow actors often look foolish as their characters lack shading, and spout slogans rather than speak dialogue.
At one point in Sunshine, one of Fiennes's characters is incarcerated in a concentration camp, where he is humiliated and tortured. His nemesis in this sequence might well be Amon Goeth—and this irony serves to mirror the difference between a carefully conceived character in a lauded motion picture, who comes alive partly through the complexity of the writing, and a mere presence in a lesser-quality film.
Indeed, as the 1990s came to a close, the Fiennes who was winning the very best screen roles was kid brother Joseph, who earned stardom in Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love.