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Two years with Ralph Fiennes

Two years with Ralph Fiennes

Ralph Fiennes spent two years battling to direct his first film. Julie Kavanagh followed him through that time, and interviewed his friends and his sisters, to track down the source of his gifts—and his demons

Ralph Fiennes spent two years battling to direct his first film. Julie Kavanagh followed him through that time, and interviewed his friends and his sisters, to track down the source of his gifts—and his demons

Julie Kavanagh | December 5th 2010

The beautiful face is gaunt, with fatigue-bruised eyes. A sideways glance, barely discernible, and the minutest curl of the upper lip let you know that an amusing private memory has been triggered. This is Ralph Fiennes, aged 29, as Lawrence of Arabia, watching newsreel footage of himself with guerrillas in the desert. His look seems to check if the moment has resonated with anyone else—though just putting it into words destroys the speed and subtlety of the execution. Then a stage actor with hardly any screen experience, Fiennes announces himself in a single close-up as a born movie star, able to seduce the camera while holding back a hinterland of mystery.

The BBC film “A Dangerous Man: Lawrence after Arabia” (1992) gave Fiennes the first of many signature roles as torment personified. Lawrence was a shattered personality, so shamed by his illegitimacy and homosexuality that his back was criss-crossed with self-inflicted weals. His eyes are likened in the film to “the blue sky shining through the empty sockets of a skull”, an effect captured by the turquoise irises of Peter O’Toole 30 years earlier. Fiennes’s eyes are even more eloquent, revealing a netherworld behind the façade. It’s an astonishing performance, and when it reached America two months later the New York Times and the Hollywood Reporter were ecstatic. “That day”, says the producer, Colin Vaines, “we had calls from Ridley Scott, Robert Redford and Spielberg.” The calls led to “Schindler’s List”, which made Fiennes’s name, and “Quiz Show”, his first leading role in a film, and then came “The English Patient”, which turned him into a heart-throb—Lawrence with a whiff of Rhett Butler. In four years he had made three major movies: a Shakespearean actor, known only to the cognoscenti, was now an international star.

Today, aged 47, Fiennes is no longer considered A-list by Hollywood. “He’s not hot,” says one studio executive. “Someone like Liam Neeson has a far more commercial sensibility in the films he takes on. Fiennes is a thesp.” The occasional shot at the mass market has backfired on him: “I felt completely lost as that Cary Grant type in ‘Maid in Manhattan’,” he says. “I didn’t know what to do.” But in roles that call for a transformation Fiennes is superb—never more so than as the disconcertingly fleshy, sadistic SS officer in “Schindler’s List”. “It freed him,” says Peter Eyre, who played Polonius to Fiennes’s Hamlet. “He wasn’t a romantic lead: he had to find something else. Olivier was said to be a character actor in the body of a matinée idol, and the same may be true of Ralph.”

To watch Fiennes’s films back to back is to be struck by his range, whether as the tatterdemalion clergyman in “Oscar and Lucinda” or the murmuring vagrant in David Cronenberg’s “Spider”. In 2008 he was both a foul-mouthed East End villain (“In Bruges”) and an 18th-century duke in “The Duchess”—an unforgettable depiction of an aristocrat whose chilly reserve masked a core of compassion. In “Bernard and Doris” (2006), an HBO film little-known outside America, he was a transvestite, alcoholic Irish butler. It would have been easy to ham, but Fiennes gave Bernard a quiet dignity, edging to decadence in tentative gradations.

“Ralph has made very specific choices,” says Juliette Binoche, his co-star in his first film, “Wuthering Heights”, and again in “The English Patient”. “He’s not part of the system, he hasn’t moved to Hollywood. He’s decided to follow his soul.” That soul keeps leading Fiennes back to the theatre. “I wouldn’t have had it any other way,” he says. “Theatre gives you an arena for emoting that film ultimately can’t compete with—that sense of something connecting in the room.”

In spring 2008, when I began shadowing him for this profile, Fiennes was appearing in Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage”, which brought out his seldom-seen comedic side, and one afternoon, on the play’s suburban-sitting-room set, I watched him rehearse a Beckett monologue, “First Love”, for a show in New York. The director was Michael Colgan of the Gate, Dublin, a self-proclaimed “Beckett missionary” who became friends with Fiennes through this shared enthusiasm. “Beckett has a strong sense of irony and self-deprecation, and Ralph gets  that,” says Colgan, who often chuckled at a wry twist of a line. With his Irish lilt and intimate, sometimes daringly sotto delivery, Fiennes made an unfamiliar text enthralling. It was like overhearing his thoughts. But his next role was Oedipus at the National Theatre—the most daunting challenge of his career—and I was intrigued to see whether this master of understatement could make Sophocles’s eruptions of horror work for an audience today.

When Olivier was Oedipus, his “vast anguish” resounded, Kenneth Tynan said, in the dome of the theatre (“Some stick of wood must still, I feel, be throbbing from it”). Fiennes, who can be too analytical in his approach, knew he would have to “find the courage to take the lid off”. Juliette Binoche, then appearing at the National in an uncompromising dance piece, could identify with this. “You have to reach a no-limit area. If he doesn’t go that far, I’ll be disappointed.”

Fiennes’s director on “Oedipus” was Jonathan Kent, a close friend, who had already directed his Hamlet, Coriolanus and Richard II. “What’s interesting about Ralph is Ralph, and these plays are examinations of him. What they elicit —'Oedipus’ in particular—is a savage and pitiless look at the self.” It took years of getting to know each other, Kent says, for their artistic relationship to flourish. “The first rehearsals were like fences coming down, and then a shorthand, a trust just grew.” Fiennes values the freedom Kent gives him, though pinning him down to a definitive delivery of a line can be a challenge. “You have to let him play, but Ralph can be quite contrary: if you say ‘That’s terrific!’ he’ll never do it again. To repeat it would seem like cheating.”

In a National rehearsal room in August, Fiennes was called with Jasper Britton, cast as Creon, and the Chorus, a group of veteran actors, half-singing their lines. He and Kent discussed what they represent to Oedipus. “He appeals to them, he cajoles them,” Fiennes said. “It’s as if they’re a sounding board for his soul.” Even on the side, waiting his turn, he was magnetic. Everyone else in the room looked ordinary—I could imagine Jasper Britton mowing the lawn on a Sunday—but Fiennes, with a shaven head and the remnants of an Umbrian tan, prowled like a predator. He broke into weird, slow-motion exercises learnt from a girlfriend, an Israeli dancer. “I get very tense and this is good for me,” he told me in the bar afterwards. “Everything has to be very loose,” he said, arms flailing like boiling spaghetti.

Three weeks later, rehearsing with Claire Higgins (playing Oedipus’s wife, Jocasta), Fiennes began in film mode—rigorously natural, voicing confidences that make the listener feel voyeuristic. The volume rose with Oedipus’s fears, the line “Not yet, not yet” acquiring a chilling, hysterical edge. A second attempt was toned down a few shades, and a third was almost euphoric. His sister Sophie Fiennes, a film-maker, says he was still experimenting three days before “Oedipus” opened. “Over dinner, Ralph recited from the beginning of the final act, and it was shattering.” But at the preview I saw in October, he was not sustaining the climax. Blinded and bloodied, Oedipus demands raw, almost expressionistic emotion from an actor, and offers no props to hide behind. Fiennes, crawling on a table, was like a primordial creature, and yet somehow histrionic, unmoving. I wondered later whether the gauze and red paint covering those eyes—his most powerful instrument—were shackling him. His delivery was uncharacteristic: it came from the page, not from the heart.

In his dressing-room afterwards, wrapped from the waist down in a red towel and pouring Krug for his guests but not for himself, Fiennes was downcast about his performance and the response from what his agent called a “Mondayish” audience. “The Olivier’s an intimidating theatre for a standing ovation,” the agent ventured. Fiennes looked unconvinced.

The reviews were mostly complimentary, but Fiennes read only one, which wasn’t —the Observer, which found his portrayal empty and external, “Oedipus simple” rather than complex. “He’s been in a depression ever since,” Jonathan Kent told me. And yet Fiennes was aware of what he calls “the curse” of a first night, which is rarely the ultimate interpretation. “It moves and mutates,” he had written in Areté magazine in 2000. “Some nights it’s flat, uninspired; the next night too energised, too relentless, other nights everything is in harmony.” This proved true when I returned late in the run. Now Fiennes’s fear was palpable, with a physical language of agony, like a Bacon painting; his barely audible “Not yet, not yet” sparking the ineffable shiver released by a great performance. The audience was silent, drawn into the moment, but at the end let rip with whoops and whistles, recalling the cast on stage again and again. Sophie Fiennes went twice and said that one performance was the most extraordinary she had ever seen. “It was not acting, it was being. It was a leap of faith, like jumping from one building to another. Ralph had dared to enter that state. Afterwards I told him, ‘Jini’s certainly gone to heaven now!’ Because she would have loved the play, she would have loved his courage on that night.”

Jini was their mother. Jennifer Lash was the driving force of the family, a motivator for each of her seven children as well as a novelist in her own right. For Sophie, her presence was too powerful, and it was only after her death that she started making films: “I felt I wasn’t being watched.” For Ralph, Jini was a twin soul, a huge influence, the person who instilled a passion for language and inspired him to be an actor. Three of his signature roles—Hamlet, Oedipus and Coriolanus—are all, a family friend says, “reprises of his relationship with Jini”.

Jini grew up in India, where her father was stationed, and Ralph remembers being shown photograph albums “full of Raj things like tiger hunts and polo matches”. His grandfather was an army officer with a typical colonial wife, who never fully adjusted to the letdown of their return to England, declaring, “I clapped my hands for the first half of my life and used them for the second!” They had four children, all highly intelligent; one son became a theologian. Jennifer, although clever, felt at odds with her siblings, having what Ralph calls “the plunging imagination of the artist, with no analysis”. She was prone to histrionic outbursts and was nicknamed “Sarah Bernhardt” by her mother—who Jennifer said was incapable of love. But there may have been a more sinister explanation for the hysteria. An unfinished play, drawing on her upbringing, includes an incestuous episode between a father and daughter, which Ralph believes is based on fact. “My mother never discussed it, but she would infer it. The story goes that she had a meltdown one day, and a Catholic priest was brought in, and finally they took her away.” Jennifer, who was 16, never went back home. Years later, when she met the writer Dodie Smith, she said she rarely heard a telephone ring without hoping it would bring news of her parents’ death.

At 17, she took a job as an au pair in Suffolk, to the three adopted sons of Iris Birtwistle, a grande dame who had been a literary It Girl, writing lyric poetry and developing a passion for art. Her gallery was an incubator for young talent, and she sold drawings by David Hockney when he was unknown. Spotting Jennifer’s potential, Birtwistle took it upon herself to heal and educate her; she renamed her Jini and sent her to a Jungian analyst, who said, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you.” This instilled a tangible confidence, and Iris saw “a beauty come through”, along with a hunger for anything creative. Jini devoured the books in Iris’s library, and, while working in the gallery, discovered a talent of her own for painting. At 21, she wrote her first novel, “The Burial”, a cathartic interior monologue about her childhood, dedicated to Iris.

Living nearby was a young tenant farmer, Mark Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes (a cousin of the adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes), whose portrait Iris had painted. Cine footage of him herding cattle during a spell in Australia shows a dashing figure of 6ft 4, with all the glamour of a Fifties film star. When Iris introduced him to Jini, the attraction was instant. Mark later told a journalist: “She was sitting in the library, her feet curled up under her as she always sat, and I thought, that’s it.” For Jini, longing to make a life for herself that could supply the love and stability she had missed, Mark was the route to it. “You don’t want to be frightened of this writing bit,” she told him. “All I want to do is have six children.”

They married soon afterwards and Jini moved into Mark’s redbrick farmhouse near the sea. Ralph was born on December 22nd 1962, Martha 14 months later. When Jini saw a notice in the Times seeking foster parents for an 11-year-old who needed “a home where he is allowed to read a book”, she insisted that they took on Michael. “We didn’t think of him as an interloper, but he seemed terrifyingly old,” Martha says. In seven years, with the birth of Magnus, Sophie and the twins Jacob and Joseph, Jini had the “litter of children” she craved. Her family became everything, helping to dispel “the clouds of disquiet which all day overshadowed her”. The line is from “May to October”, her novel drawing on this period, which Ralph finds too autobiographical to read. It vividly evokes their crowded life:

The rooms were empty tousled spaces, still charged with the echoes of the children’s voices, and the endless hurl and bound of their bodies in and out of the chairs and into the doors and tables. Everywhere things lay about in a dervish whirl, jumpers, anoraks, books, games; contraptions and experiments: strange little clustered hoards of oddments…Their voices were sound patterns. She knew intimately the emotional range of each.

Sharing a bedroom with Magnus, Ralph was ruthless about protecting his own space—“I couldn’t bear his clutter encroaching”—and, with life unfolding en masse, he longed for privacy. This was paramount to Jini too, who made a quest for solitude the subject of “May to October”. “She felt there was a side of her that was not being fulfilled,” Ralph says. “And being the woman she was, this frustration would manifest itself in tears and hysteria. It would be triggered by the potatoes being overdone, or the washing left in the rain. There’d be screaming and crying and slamming of doors. But my father was amazing, always stoical, and very rarely would he react. He’d say, ‘You leave this to us: I’ll get the washing. We’ll all clear up.’ ”

“Jini desperately needed the unfaltering strength of someone like Mark,” says Simon Loftus, a Suffolk friend. “He would probably have led a conventional gentleman farmer’s life, but under Jini’s influence he became a hero.” Friends called him Abraham, because of his sense of himself as father of the tribe, unthreatened by the compelling force of his wife. “She’s painting pictures, and I’m painting shelves,” the father sanguinely observes in “May to October”, which is dedicated to “M.T.W.F. utterly and entirely”. Theirs was a unity of opposites working together, but with the farm having become unprofitable, Mark decided to submit to an artistic impulse in himself, and started working as a photographer.

In the early Seventies the family were living on the Wiltshire-Dorset border, but after accompanying Mark on an assignment in Ireland Jini announced they were moving there. “She’d fallen in love with the Irish spirit, their openness towards family,” Ralph says. His parents wanted to get away from what Jini called the “achievement mania” of the English, and the idea—or fantasy—was to build and sell property in places of beauty such as West Cork, where they settled in a house by the sea. Jini planned to school all seven children herself. “We’d go for a walk and she’d pull a book out of her pocket and read us something,” Sophie says. “She was a very good educator, with a sense of huge urgency. My mother came from an academic background, but she hated what she perceived as dry, complacent academe. She didn’t want any of us to go to university. And although I went to some conventional schools, I was primarily educated by her. She loved poetry, and she used language as her biggest weapon.”

Creativity was valued above all else; Martha, now a film director, remembers a friend asking the children what choice of career would most disappoint their parents. “One of us said, ‘A bank manager’. And there were roars of laughter, because it was absolutely right.” To his siblings, Jake—now working in conservation—is the rebel of the family, although Sophie insists that Jini was “fantastically supportive” of all their endeavours. She told Ralph the plot of “Hamlet” as a bedtime story when he was eight or nine, and played him a record of Olivier’s speeches: she was grooming him for the stage.

A year of home education exhausted Jini, so the children went to the village school —apart from Ralph, who was sent to a private, co-ed Quaker boarding school in Waterford. “I loved it. The place was pulsating with hormones, and I had my first flirtations with the opposite sex.” But the small legacy that had paid the school fees soon ran out, and he left after only a year. “From then on I don’t think I ever considered that any school would be permanent, or any friendships,” he has said. “I would always move on; there would always be change.”

The family were now acutely short of money. “People just don’t believe the penury,” says Sophie, “but it was very hand-to-mouth. There was always panic.” Convinced that Ireland had been a mistake, Jini took the younger children back to England, leaving Mark and Ralph in a B&B while they packed up the house. Uncharacteristically, Mark took a stand and in an emotional telephone call he persuaded Jini to give Ireland a second chance. “I went with him to meet my mother and brothers and sisters off the boat at Rosslare, and still have a graven image of her deep frustration and upset.” They bought a Georgian house in Kilkenny, and both Mark and Jini took black-and-white pictures of Irish scenes which they sold as postcards: “their most commercial venture,” says Sophie. The children went to the local Catholic school, but although Jini was a believer (“I love God!” Martha remembers her exclaiming), she felt stifled by the church’s hold on families. By 1976, they were back in Wiltshire.

The move meant more independence for Ralph. Aged 14, he was at Bishop Wordsworth’s grammar school in Salisbury, “doing my best to be accepted in a male, rugby-playing world”. Martha describes her brother as “incredibly good-looking—of course, most of my friends fancied him,” but Ralph claims to have suffered from the usual teenage anxieties about attractiveness. “There were furtive forages into sexual relationships, but nothing major. I did have a girlfriend for six months whom I would bicycle off to see, but she chucked me at a disco party we were giving together. I remember the humiliation and the upset…walking barefoot round Shaftesbury at 5.30 in the morning in melancholic heartbreak.”

When his parents moved to London in 1980, Ralph stayed on in Salisbury, living in digs, to finish his A-levels. Although he had shown a facility for language while acting in school plays and speaking in class, he could not construct a plausible essay. “Ask me to analyse ‘King Lear’ and I hadn’t got a clue—I didn’t have that kind of mind.” He got an E in English, a C in history, and an A in art, which led to a foundation course at Chelsea, and “a thrilling year”. The teaching was intense, provoking him to think more broadly, and he loved London’s galleries. “I felt very liberated, and would bicycle off in my dungarees covered in paint.” One project was to make a version of an old master; Fiennes chose “Las Meninas” by Velázquez, which his teacher had told him had been a springboard for Picasso. “I started messing around, breaking it down into 3D, which reminded me of the little Pollock’s toy theatre I had as a child—that same principle of figures in space with some dramatic charge between them.” He became curious about theatre design and considered taking a course, before realising that his real impulse lay on the stage. Jini was delighted. “It was almost as if she’d been waiting for it.”

Landing the part of Romeo with an amateur group emboldened him to go for a place at RADA which he won. Martha looked at the list of names and said, “Ralph, can you see any of these people’s name in lights? Imogen Stubbs! Iain Glen! Jane Horrocks!” Theirs turned out to be an outstanding year, but their phonetics teacher, Joan Washington, saw Fiennes as “absolutely an individual, rather than a member of the group”. His gifts were obvious: “He had a voice you could imagine would make him a great theatre actor. Along with the eyes—that look, that stare.”

RADA had a policy of sharing out leading roles, so none of his contemporaries considered Fiennes to be “more than perfectly OK”, as the actor Neil Dudgeon puts it. “Ralph was slightly geeky, easily flustered, but likeable and charming. He was just one of us—silly, funny, talented kids—not a film star in embryo. Nobody could pose.” All the same, Dudgeon, a working-class northern boy, formed a scathing first impression of Fiennes. “At the beginning of term the teachers called out our names on the register, and every time Ralph would say, ‘It’s Rafe, actually’, and I’d think what a snooty wanker.” Fiennes sensed Dudgeon’s derision, but was also struck by his perceptiveness. “I always felt in agreement with what he said. There was an honesty about Neil which was very compelling.” Fiennes invited him for a weekend in Wiltshire, where Jini was painting and looking after Sophie and the twins.

Expecting a mansion, Dudgeon was taken aback to find “a tiny nursery-rhyme cottage, as if they all lived in a shoe”. He was even more startled when Jini, “warm and earth-mothery, her hair in a dishevelled bun”, told him, “You’re crap!” She meant Krapp, in Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape”. “I fell in love that day with Ralph’s parents—such wonderful, enthusiastic, life-enhancing people. They had this blazing, arty thing going, and I remember being impressed by their ‘modern’ relationship with Jini in her studio in the country, and Mark, Magnus, Martha and Ralph in a south-London flat. It was so liberated.”

Dudgeon remains one of Ralph’s best friends, loyal but irreverent. At RADA, he would rag him about his feverish approach to everything he did. “In a ballet class he’d be grand-jetéing across the room with a desperate intensity. We’d piss ourselves, and he’d swear at us, but he’d be laughing. Ralph can laugh at himself very easily. I remember the time we went to Paris for a week and met two French girls in a bar. We paired off and chatted away, and at one point Ralph tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘What’s French for the Kurdish problem?’ ” In class, Joan Washington says, Fiennes would “be the one leaning forward”. When RADA’s librarian gave him a copy of Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin”, Fiennes was overwhelmed.  “It haunted me for years.”

His ardour was shared by a redhead in the year below, Alex Kingston. “She was curious and engaged with foreign literature, French cinema,” Fiennes says. “She thought outside the tradition of English theatre. She had such a positive energy about her, incredibly charismatic, and she was very popular.” Soon, Dudgeon says, “she and Ralph were mooning at each other. It was a likemindedness: Alex was passionate, intelligent, charming, funny, very sexy.” Fiennes loved her “great quality of feminine strength”, and describes the start of their affair as “very intense and romantic, very youthful”.

His first role as a paid actor was Curio, a minor figure in “Twelfth Night”, at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, in 1985. With him in the New Shakespeare Company was John Moffatt (as Malvolio), whose conversational delivery left its mark on Fiennes, then 23: “It was incredible: his pitch was perfect.” Soon Fiennes was playing Romeo, also in Regent’s Park: he remembers “emoting a lot, but not being much good”. Two years later, when he joined Michael Rudman’s company at the National, he was still tending to “pull the choke out too far”, as one observer put it. But the depth of his research was enough to convince Rudman that he was “going all the way”. When he appeared in Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author”, he read the play in four versions.

In 1988 he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company; his audition is remembered by the director Adrian Noble as one of the three best he had seen, along with Kenneth Branagh and Joanne Pearce. “He had that extraordinary focus”, Noble says, “which gives amazing energy on stage and on film is hypnotic. And he had an ease with the language, which is priceless—it lets the audience involve themselves with the character.” Noble, who was compressing four Shakespeare history plays into one entitled “The Plantagenets”, had been struggling to find a Henry VI. “With Ralph, it was such a clear decision. Very often people want to mystify Henry or turn him into a saint, but Ralph liked him as he is, and gave him a strong moral presence. Instead of trying to complicate the simplicity of the Molehill speech, as some actors would, he did the opposite.”

When I saw that performance at Stratford, Fiennes’s stillness seemed to freeze the audience’s breath. Martha felt the same thing. “The auditorium went deadly quiet when he came on, and I thought, ‘He’s holding something here.’ There’s a charge around Ralph—it’s there when he walks into a room.” Not everyone was impressed: “Ralph’s so wooden, he’s a fire hazard!” said a more flamboyant contemporary. But the Shakespeare veteran Brian Cox was struck by Fiennes’s vocal technique. “He had a Gielgudian, tremulous quality to his voice that was traditional in a way, but unusual. There was nothing prosaic about Ralph—he was like an actor from the past.”

Fiennes lived alone for his first season, renting a cottage outside Stratford; then Alex Kingston joined the RSC and they shared a cottage opposite the stage door. When she played Cordelia in “King Lear” and he was Edmund, they seemed to Martha to be “the epitome of the jeunesse dorée”, but Ralph recalls being less happy that year. “I didn’t feel my roles were as fully achieved. I struggled with Troilus, and didn’t quite get my head around Edmund. I was terrible as Berowne in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’—not at all relaxed. It’s always painful when you know a thing isn’t gelling, and people nod politely at you afterwards in the Dirty Duck.” Instinctively maternal by nature, Alex “was great at looking after him,” a friend says. “She was ebullient while he was moody and taciturn. If he went off into his own world, she would cover for him.”

When the RSC repertory transferred to the Barbican in London, Fiennes felt “the whole thing blossom”. He also appeared in his first television role, in the original “Prime Suspect”, as the melancholy boyfriend of a murder victim: with his lean, poetic face, long hair and studded leather jacket, he was a Plantagenet who had landed in the wrong century. “He didn’t even know he had to wait for the word ‘Action!’,” says the director, Christopher Menaul. Six months later, as T.E. Lawrence, Fiennes was mastering this different art, his day beginning at 6am on set and ending after the Barbican curtain-call. “He was brilliant at unlearning everything he knew from theatre—he really, really wanted to know what would work on screen,” says the producer, Colin Vaines. “He immersed himself in ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’, taking it all very seriously.”

Fiennes had first read Lawrence’s weighty autobiography at nine or ten (“Jini had obviously given it to him,” Martha says). Mother and son had made a pilgrimage to his home, Clouds Hill, and been startled by the sense of Lawrence’s personality in every room. Ralph went back “and felt it again”, and then a third time for a BBC series about places that had made an impact on public figures. When the script of “A Dangerous Man” arrived, it seemed it was meant to be. “My mother knew it accessed something for me. We didn’t speak about it, she just knew.” Mark, while always supportive, never understood him like this, Fiennes says. “He read political and military biographies, he loved James Bond and Alastair MacLean. He gave me a book one Christmas by Auberon Waugh—I didn’t know what to do with it. My father didn’t really hear what I was saying, whereas my mother knew what I was trying to chase, somehow. Her analysis was so acute: she’d guess your moods, pick up on your anxiety.”

Wondering if this rapport was unique to the two of them, I asked Ralph’s sisters if he alone had inherited Jini’s dark side. “I wouldn’t say for a second that it’s only Ralph—I bloody well absorbed it!” Martha replied, and Sophie insisted that their mother’s instability had affected them all. “She broke a cycle for herself, but in that exorcism we, as her children, were bystanders and are still left with her unhappiness. There are some things in life that don’t go away. Catharsis happens in the theatre.” For Ralph, this has indeed been the case: his access to pain and the blackest recesses of human nature has infiltrated his acting. “You get to examine things that you can’t consciously confront in everyday life,” he told the psychotherapist Adam Phillips in a conversation about Oedipus. “You get to unleash some really dark stuff.”

It was these infernal depths, visible in “A Dangerous Man” and as a menacing Heathcliff in “Wuthering Heights”, that led Spielberg to cast Fiennes as Goeth in “Schindler’s List”. He described seeing “moments of kindness that would move across his eyes and then instantly run cold”, a paradox on which Fiennes would construct his performance. He did research at the Imperial War Museum which suggested a fractured personality, bereft of love: “I want to see if I can articulate the pain of the man,” he told Martha. He “felt split about him”, and showed it in glancing moments of tenderness towards Goeth’s Jewish maid. As one critic wrote, “His human traits kept pulling us in just as his inhuman ones repelled us.”

Fiennes had a theory that Goeth’s moral decrepitude was linked to his corpulence and asked Spielberg if he wanted him to put on weight. “He said, ‘Yes, yes if you can,’ so I bought Complan powder from the chemist and within a couple of weeks I’d developed this soft paunch.” Wearing an ss uniform for the first time gave him an inkling of Goeth’s psychotic sense of supremacy. “It felt good. It felt powerful.”

And also icily authentic. When he and Ben Kingsley, dressed in his prison-camp outfit with its yellow star, walked round Krakow’s Kazimierz quarter and were invited into the Jewish Café by its smiling proprietress, Fiennes felt too uncomfortable to accept. Filming “Schindler’s List” was intense—“I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a bonding between a crew and cast” —and he made a lasting friendship with Liam Neeson. “He was instinctively paternalistic: there’s a Schindler-like nature in him.” Fiennes won a BAFTA as Best Supporting Actor, and six other awards, but missed out on the Oscar for which he was nominated.

Fiennes responded to the success of “Schindler’s List” by sacking his American agent and hiring one who he felt would keep him at the top. “It was then”, Mark Fiennes told a friend, “that I realised how ambitious Ralph is.” His son’s overnight acquisition of money and celebrity wasn’t easy to accept. Mark had always suffered from not being able to provide properly for his family, and he became upset, Sophie says, reading press reports about how poor they had been. “He saw that as his failure.” Fame also took its toll on Ralph’s relationship with Alex Kingston, upstaging the shared excitement of their start together. “It was hard,” he says. “There was a sudden change in the energy of our lives. When the American media turns its spotlight on you, there’s no experience like it.”

Worse was to come. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1986, Jini had been in remission until now, when it became clear that she had little time left. “It was very odd to be part of this amazing success story which went hand-in-hand with my mother dying.” Jini loved Alex, as did his sisters, and Ralph decided to marry her sooner rather than later. “Somehow we thought the wedding was going to heal everything,” Kingston has said, “but that was crazy, of course.” Heady with sudden stardom, Fiennes did not seem ready to settle down. A friend remembered “going to some bars with him and thinking, ‘I wish I knew you better, because I don’t reckon you should be getting married.’ ” The wedding, held on a glorious Suffolk day in September 1993, was all the more emotional because Jini was in pain. Neil Dudgeon, the best man, sat beside her in the front pew, waiting for the bride to arrive. “When the music started, I turned round and saw Alex. She was wearing a green velvet medieval dress with long sleeves over the hands, and I said, ‘Oh Jini’, and burst into tears. She was the one with fucking cancer, but there she was hugging and patting me, saying, ‘You’ve got to get up now, Neil, and give Ralph the ring.’ ”

Jini died in December, aged 55. As Mark hated undertakers, the family organised the funeral themselves, painting the coffin electric blue, a symbol of strength. She had seen an early screening of “Schindler’s List”, but did not live to enjoy Ralph’s fame. “In everything I do”, he told Adam Phillips, “I feel the lack of her being witness.” When he played Hamlet,15 months after her death, he told a journalist how his mother would have loved to see it. “And I sort of feel she will, in a funny way.” On the first night, he reserved a seat for her.

Kent’s “Hamlet” opened at the cavernous Hackney Empire in February 1995, with Fiennes as a modern, unkempt hero. For him, the play was predominantly about “primal blood relationships”, and, as if in response, John Peter, in the Sunday Times, saw “a portrayal of pain that cannot be shared”. Other critics praised Fiennes’s “superb phrasing”, “innumerable lights and textures”, “immense speed but complete clarity”. The closet scene was electrifyingly erotic, with Francesca Annis, as Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, bending over Fiennes, her full breasts loose under a white cotton nightdress. By April, when “Hamlet” moved to a smaller theatre in New York, their kiss was getting longer and longer; Peter Eyre, lying under the arras as Polonius, heard a woman shout from the audience, “That’s disgusting!” There was another reason for the illicit charge: Fiennes and Annis were falling in love.

Just before the Broadway run, Fiennes, living with his wife in East Dulwich, had sounded untypically domestic in an interview with the New Yorker. “I’m not going to move anywhere in a hurry,” he said. “We’re making our home really a home, like a pair of shoes that become a part of you.” The year before, however,  there had been turbulence, with competitiveness on Alex’s side (“she was furious when Ralph praised an actress in a role she had wanted,” says a colleague), compounded by Fiennes filming “Strange Days” in Los Angeles, and leading what the colleague calls “a bit of a rock-star life”. Being married to a heart-throb made Alex feel insecure. “She wanted a family,” says a mutual friend, “but 2.2 kids wasn’t Ralph.”

Brought up in Brazil, Francesca Annis was an exotic, irresistible siren, the 18-year age gap only adding to her allure. “Ralph’s default position is loving older women,” Martha says. “Intelligent women, opinionated women, who have lived a bit and bring a sense of humour and assurance.” At 50 Annis was all that and more, combining her career with three children and a reputation for independence spiced with loucheness. The British tabloids seized on the idea of “the sexiest man in the world”, still mourning his mother, taking up with a woman nearly two decades his senior, and spun themselves into what an American observer called “an Oedipal frenzy”. At the mention of this, Sophie rolls her eyes. “Francesca is so not a mother figure. She’s a femme fatale, a lover-woman. For a long time there was a huge bond based on their craft—Ralph was incredibly impressed by Francesca’s sophisticated understanding of the theatre.” Bruised to this day by the coverage, Fiennes refuses to discuss the affair. All he will say is, “Francesca is a wonderful actress—a great actress. And she was a fantastic Gertrude.”

Not since Richard Burton in 1964 had a New York “Hamlet” created such a buzz. It took $1.5m in advance bookings and the first-night crowd included Lauren Bacall, Tom Hanks and Spielberg. Exhilarated by it all, Fiennes became much freer, Peter Eyre says. “I’d found something tight about him in London, but the way audiences respond in New York is so excessive, it makes English actors give out more.”

Fiennes won a Tony, the first Hamlet ever to do so. At the ceremony in June Alex was by his side, even though the affair with Francesca was now, as Jonathan Kent knew, “clearly what it was”. In his speech Fiennes paid tribute to Kent as “my heart’s friend”, and after the run they went to Kent’s family home on Cape Cod. “Francesca came too,” Kent remembers, “And it was great. A sort of idyllic time.” When the summer was over, Fiennes flew to Rome to prepare “The English Patient”—the film which, more than any other, made him a romantic lead.

In 1998 Fiennes was in St Petersburg, playing the title role in the film “Onegin”, directed by Martha. Between takes, we spoke as he sat on a balcony overlooking the frozen Moika canal, a hot-water bottle under his jacket. I was there researching a biography of Nureyev, but in my then role as London editor of the New Yorker I had asked him to write about his fascination with Pushkin’s poem. Deferring to Nabokov, who said that “Eugene Onegin” could only be appreciated in the original, Fiennes was learning Russian, although he had come to see this as a “blithely ridiculous” aim. The article revealed the stirrings of an interest in directing, describing how he had drawn storyboard pictures and written a treatment himself. His account of a visit to Pushkin’s country estate was packed with evocative detail—another legacy from his mother, and one he takes for granted. “Actors and writers exercise the same intensity of imagination.”

In his stiff 19th-century costume and Mr Pecksniff quiff, Fiennes’s Onegin has little of the sexual power of his Hungarian count in “The English Patient”, with his searing gaze and imploding passions. But it is the anti-romantic, anti-hero Onegin who is closer to Fiennes’s own character, expressing opinions which could well be his. “I’m not made for love or marriage,” he tells the adoring Tatiana (Liv Tyler). “Can’t you see where this leads? A declaration, a kiss, a wedding, a family…boredom…Adultery.” Provocatively, Fiennes even appears in a fleeting scene with Francesca Annis, unnamed in the credits, who is introduced as a courtesan, langorously blowing cigar smoke through her nostrils. Fondling her bare foot, he gives her toe a wolfish lick before fetishistically slipping on a scarlet leather boot and making love to her.

In 1999 I took him to meet John Gielgud, then aged 95, at his house in Buckinghamshire, South Pavilion. Fiennes was about to play Richard II, a famous Gielgud role, and the chance to bring them together was too good to miss. Fiennes was intense, as ever, but gentle, adjusting to Gielgud’s pace. While I made lunch, they sat on the sofa with their sherries and discussed the play. Fiennes told me they had talked about the difficulty of establishing character amid all the pageantry at the beginning; in a perfect imitation, he repeated Gielgud’s remark, “But once you get to Flint Castle you have lovely things to do.” He meant the extraordinary passages of self-examination, Fiennes says, “where the language is so brilliant, and you have the poetic imagination in a freefall of despair.” These are the notes I jotted down that day:

South Pavilion, 2.9.99. At lunch R tried to explain “Shakespeare in Love” [starring his brother Joseph] with a witty script by Tom Stoppard, which prompted J’s usual line about never liking Stoppard. R told the story behind “Quiz Show” and working with Paul Scofield, whom they both love. R described how he had seen Scofield as Oberon hold the audience spellbound with a single gesture and then walk forward towards them, sitting among them with Puck. They talked about “Hamlet”: R wants another go—he thinks constantly of things he could have done, J says his first was his best. They’d both played “Ivanov”: J says his wasn’t a success; R felt the audience was bored with him—the other characters were more amusing. J told of how he’d dissuaded Alec Guinness and Ralph Richardson from doing “Waiting for Godot”, telling them it was rubbish...and lunch with T.S. Eliot, who told J he wasn’t right for “The Family Reunion” because he had no faith. R told him about filming “The End of the Affair”, and admitted to me later that he was worried he was boring J by talking about himself. But J had so warmed to R who looked beautiful and said the right things from the beginning, eg, how much he loved J in “The Secret Agent” as his brittle nervosity was exactly right for Ashenden. J thought he’d made a hash of it, and said the cast found him something of a stuck-up intellectual, and Hitchcock kept making fun of him. Hitchcock was very smutty, asking Madeline Carroll things like, “How many times did you do it last night?” J seemed to have dropped ten years—more animated than he’s been since Martin [his partner] died. His complexion is polished pink again and he’s not inching but walking. We had to rush off by 3 for R to get his train (which he missed). “Oh must you go?” J murmured.

Gielgud died a few months later. Fiennes was now approaching 40, and while his policy was clear—“shooting with J-Lo and then coming back to do a play by Ibsen” —his film roles over the next six years made little lasting impact. One exception was le Carré’s “The Constant Gardener” (2005), in which he played an English diplomat in Africa who loses his wife and, in the process, finds himself. “It was a turning point for Ralph,” Sophie says. “You can see him enjoying his technique in a way that’s much freer.” Fiennes had responded to the director Fernando Meirelles’s improvisatory style—“You never knew where the camera was, whether you were in the shot. I felt a freedom, a looseness”—and he liked the character, “his lack of overt heroism, his quiet courage and integrity”.

Fiennes’s theatre choices were more memorable. Back at the RSC  in 2003, he was outstanding as the ranting, Lutheran pastor in Ibsen’s “Brand”; and in Dublin and then New York in 2006, he was the itinerant shaman Frank Hardy in Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer”—a modest masterpiece in which the same tale is told by three actors in four monologues with subtle divergences. Friel wrote to me:

I must have seen scores of faith healers over the years, beginning in 1979 with James Mason who was very icy, aristocratic, British, charming, a Frank Hardy who never really doubted his talent, and ending with Owen Roe last year at the Gate (Dublin) who was broken and bumbling and utterly at sea with himself. And somewhere between the two there was the magnificent Ralph Fiennes. I can still see those burning eyes and that almost robotic body as he goes out into the dawn to face his death. Very deliberately he never fully became Frank Hardy—great actors always retain part of their own personality. But he showed us a faith healer that only he could envision.

When I showed this to Fiennes, he took the penultimate line as indirect criticism—a feeling that he had not fully submerged himself in the role. Yet it was precisely the glimpse of himself, the intensity and inherent egotism, that made his interpretation compelling. “Despite yourself, you can’t take your eyes off him because the power behind the pose is so genuine,” Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times. “Faith Healer” is a parable of the writer’s elusive gift, but to Jonathan Kent, who directed the production, its reach is much wider. “It’s partly about the damage that art does to the artist, and to anyone who comes into contact with him or her. To a degree that’s true of Ralph: his talent, and therefore his fame, brings all sorts of horrible things in its wake.”

Kent’s point was explosively illustrated during the Dublin run, when tabloid headlines exposing Fiennes’s infidelity with a Romanian singer brought his relationship with Francesca to an end after 11 years. “The press was absolutely shocking,” Kent says. Long before, however, Francesca had told a friend that things were “winding down”. Life with Fiennes had not been easy, demanding total focus on him while at the same time requiring an emotional withdrawal that gave him his own space. “Ralph has to have his hut at the end of the garden,” Martha says, “whatever relationship he’s in.”

More damagingly, Fiennes had come to see monogamy as “sexual imperialism”, and sought out flings with free-spirited women, including a Wagnerian opera star. “Ralph’s got a wild side,” Kent says. “He’s this odd contradiction: part ascetic, part libertine.” In 2008 Fiennes satirised his own roguishness in “The God of Carnage” at the Gielgud Theatre: his eyes suddenly turned like headlights on a woman he did not find especially attractive, but enjoyed disconcerting—an off-stage habit too. “It’s a kind of power play,” Sophie says. “He’s fascinated by the performance of sexuality.” She makes a pair of devil’s horns with her index fingers. “There are many women who could testify to the fact there’s more than just a dark brooding side of Ralph,” she laughs, “It’s not just older women, it’s all women…only Martha and I are exempt!”

There was a third eruption in the press in 2007 over a mile-high incident with a Qantas stewardess on a flight from Darwin to Mumbai. To Neil Dudgeon, the fact that Fiennes, by now playing J.K. Rowling’s Voldemort, was billed as “Harry Potter star” was more shaming than revelations of the escapade itself. “I thought it was that little boy who’d been caught shagging! There was a tiny picture of Ralph and a huge one of the blonde, and when I said he should complain to his publicist he put his head in his hands and groaned.”

Fiennes insists that long-term relationships are not for him. “A door slams. Of course there are encounters, but I’ve almost resigned myself to being alone for good.” Alone is a relative term, though, as he forms intriguing friendships with creative women, notably Amanda Harlech, a bookish, elfin divorcee who works with the designer Karl Lagerfeld and divides her time between the Paris Ritz and a farm in Shropshire. “Ralph just lights up when she’s with him,” says a colleague. “She can make him laugh at himself.”

“I think he really doesn’t want to be domestic—that’s his great fear,” says Jonathan Kent, and Sophie Fiennes agrees. “It means that you forsake solitude—the one thing our mother really missed.” Ralph’s stock answer, if asked why he is the only Fiennes without children, is “I had kids when I was a kid”, but to Adam Phillips he was more revealing. “I have a memory of the chaos, the panic, the uncertainty. And I’m not eager to revisit it.” Clearly children do not bring out the best in him; Kent laughs as he recalls how Fiennes terrorised the young actors playing Oedipus’s children, who he felt were being too stagey. “They were dying to meet him because of ‘Harry Potter’, but all he did was hiss and glare at them.”

Sophie, who recently had her first baby, detects something of a pose. “Ralph likes to say he hates children, but he’s good with his nephews and nieces, and gets on really well with Francesca’s children.” Martha remembers feeling trepidation when he inherited Annis’s teenagers, “but he became very fond and respectful of them”. Ralph is adamant that he will not have children of his own. “I’ve felt, since I was small, this tug away, to be by myself. I don’t feel in the end that I’m well-suited to any kind of conventional relationship. I have wonderful friends whom I can open up to and not be judged on it; I love my siblings; we are all bonded and very close. That is my family.”

“Ralph is at quite a happy point in his life,” Dudgeon says. In London he lives near Jonathan Kent, in a minimalist Shoreditch flat, “like a monk who’s won the lottery” as his brother Magnus puts it. He has an apartment in the West Village in New York (“Sometimes I think he might make a life there”), and his retreat is a rented house near Arezzo in Italy: “I read, I swim, but mostly I go to hide.” He has begun to rebuild a friendship with Annis, but he relishes not having to account to anyone. “It’s the work he’s married to,” Dudgeon says. “He’s in love with it: Ralph’s spouse is his career."

For two years, Fiennes’s commitment—inordinate and unabated—has been to making a film version of “Coriolanus”, the springboard for a new career as a director. Why this particular Shakespeare play, seldom performed and less than lyrical, should hold such a fascination, he cannot fully explain. “Except that certain parts arrive for actors—like ‘Jerusalem’ for Mark Rylance—and I feel I can say something about Coriolanus, express some totality about him.” He admits, too, that the character allows him to explore “so much shit of my own”. 

Coriolanus is a fearless Roman soldier, who refuses to toe the political line urged on him by the patricians and feign humility to the plebeians—which would secure his election as consul. “He’s like a jihadist,” Fiennes says, “a man who will not negotiate. It’s not something I can believe in myself, but that extremity is thrilling to investigate.” And yet Coriolanus’s absolutism sounds not unlike Fiennes. “Ralph’s never swayed by any entity,” Martha says. “He has a single-mindedness, a core of strength that allows him to do dangerous things and not be afraid of ridicule.” The psyche of the soldier is close to his heart: as a child he drew battle scenes and dreamed of being a marine, and he remains fascinated with military strategy. But the most crucial link may be this: “There’s no man in the world/More bound to [his]mother.”

When he played Coriolanus on stage, in a Kent production which ran in tandem with “Richard II” in 2000, Fiennes polarised spectators. I can still picture his arrogant, narcissistic Richard, but struggle to remember Coriolanus, apart from the spittle-flying venom of his words. One critic friend, Peter Conrad, admired “the pleasure Fiennes took in being hateful—so unlike the craving most actors have to be loved: as much a self-portrait as his Onegin”. Another, Alastair Macaulay, was dismissive: “You could hear everything he said, and you couldn’t understand a word of it.” The acoustics at the vast Gainsborough Film Studios were “horrible” for all the actors, Fiennes says, though in playing a character defined by rage his shortcomings were more conspicuous. Over the next decade the idea of playing Coriolanus in the intimate medium of film became an obsession. On camera he could contain the fury in a close-up, and show interior emotions that would not register on stage. “Shakespeare is internal,” he says. “I’m sure he would be writing for the cinema if he were alive today.” 

As it happened, a Hollywood screenwriter who shared an agent with Fiennes was equally consumed by “Coriolanus”, and convinced that of all the plays this one would have more power on the screen.  This was John Logan, whose scripts for “Gladiator” and “The Aviator” were both nominated for Oscars. “The miraculous thing was that we were on exactly the same wavelength,” Logan says, and Fiennes echoes him: “It’s been completely symbiotic.” They both wanted street-to-street fighting, with the Volsci presented as insurgents, and the language was to be one that film executives could understand. Coriolanus is “a sort of killing machine. A shark moving through the ocean. Ruthless and efficient”; and the great lines (“like an eagle in a dovecote, I/Fluttered your Volscians in Corioles”) would be offset by 21st-century asides, such as “Menenaus consults his BlackBerry”. They also agreed on the need to heighten the domestic drama at the heart of “Coriolanus”— the mother-son axis, which matches Coriolanus’s love-hate bond with his enemy, Tullus Aufidius. 

While rehearsing “Oedipus”, Fiennes was also struggling to finance “Coriolanus”. The main investor, an American billionaire, withdrew after the financial meltdown, and the project collapsed. “It didn’t surprise me,” said Fiennes. “I’m an untried director, I know the reality.” Logan was even more pessimistic: “I would have bet against it happening. ‘Coriolanus’ is not only a Shakespeare play, it’s one not many people would rush to see. But Ralph is the proverbial iron butterfly—gentle and nurturing, with a spine of steel.”

When we met for lunch in spring 2009, Fiennes was about to go to Cannes in a last attempt to get “Coriolanus” on course for that year. His mood was sombre, but he became impassioned discussing the possibilities, putting his framing hands right up against my face. “Every soliloquy is a close-up. It’s about getting into people—behind the eyes.” The film would probably happen, he said, if he cast Meryl Streep as Coriolanus’s mother Volumnia, but he had promised the role to Vanessa Redgrave. “I wanted her from day one. She has infinite layers of spirit going on.” He was in a rare limbo; his only work that summer was recording Eliot’s “Four Quartets” for Faber.

In the autumn he spent nine weeks on the permanent “Harry Potter” set at Leavesden Studios, filming Part 1 of “The Deathly Hallows”, his fourth appearance as the evil Voldemort. “It’s quite fun. I’m looked after; it takes the pressure off the huge anxiety.” We had lunch in his trailer, Fiennes in full make-up, with a veined scalp, yellowy little teeth, and long stained nails emphasising his feminine fingers. I asked if anything was different in his life. “No,” he replied firmly, “I’m a single man and I intend to stay that way. I think, ‘shall I call up so-and-so?’ and then I decide I’m too tired.”

His fee was big enough for him to consider part-funding “Coriolanus” himself—“I couldn’t bear for it to go down”—and he had used an invitation to the Belgrade film festival to scout for locations. It was Serbia’s dismal, war-scarred capital that he had chosen as the “somewhere, nowhere place” he wanted—a setting that could just as well be Chechnya or Basra.

He played me the mood reel, which was brutally contemporary and included footage of the anti-Milosevic riots. “I want to use the Serbian police who were involved as extras.” Opening a folder on his MacBook, he showed me clips of the sugar factory he had chosen for the scene where Volumnia, accompanied by Coriolanus’s wife and son, begs him to reconsider sacking Rome. Two stand-ins slowly walked the length of the abandoned factory floor. One was Amanda Harlech, wearing a “Dr Zhivago” hat and ankle-length coat, the other the film’s Serbian line producer, Angie Vlaisavljevic, whose faith had touched Fiennes: “the most extraordinary friend”.

By October his luck with “Coriolanus” had changed. The producer of “The Duchess”, Gaby Tana, who is half-American, half-Serbian, had been intrigued by Fiennes’s concept of the play as a political thriller and found a young investor in Belgrade to put up significant money. With three producers now involved (including Colin Vaines, from “Lawrence after Arabia”), the next step was to halve the original budget and reach a figure that was marketable. A last-minute coup, in studio terms, was the casting of a Hollywood action man, Gerard Butler, as Tullus Aufidius. Fiennes had managed to keep on board his dream team, which included the cinematographer from “The Hurt Locker”, Barry Ackroyd, chosen for his documentary realism; Susanna Lenton, a script editor whose work Fiennes had admired on “The Constant Gardener” and “The Reader”; and Joan Washington, his voice coach from RADA days, to steer the actors to naturalism. On January 7th Fiennes flew to Belgrade, moving into a white, light, split-level flat in Strahinjica Bana—the Shoreditch of Serbia—to begin “the miracle” of shooting “Coriolanus”.

Eight months later, pushing his bike along the pavements of Soho after dinner, Fiennes relived the ordeal of watching the audience at a test screening answer questions about his film, hands shooting up, or not, like schoolchildren’s. The film was “locked” but there was time for small fixes—some responding to notes from Peter Brook, whose naturalistic “King Lear” had been an influence. I’d been out twice to Belgrade during the shoot and seen how close the feel of the shoot was to the mood reel. The film mingled organically with its locations: in a market scene locals picked over the produce; a restaurant frequented by Serbian gangsters had a genuine “no guns” sign on the door, and opposite was a fast-food kiosk that had been renamed Sausage Maximus. On the second trip I watched a rough-cut on Fiennes’s Mac: urgent, fast-moving action and close-ups so tight that you could count the rays on his irises.

To see Fiennes directing was to observe his many facets: his fastidiousness about details; his art-school eye guiding the framing of every shot; a playfulness which sunlit the room when he was elated; his Oedipus ferocity with hands circling his shaven pate in despair at the chatter between takes (even Colin Vaines was once a target of his fury, “which was quite scary”). At dinner on a warm May night he looked shattered by the strain of acting as well as directing. It was nearly midnight, and we were sitting on an empty terrace overlooking the floodlit castle walls, with gamey smells drifting up from the zoo below. He had struggled all day, he said, to find the truth of the lines “to reach that naked place”, while knowing he had to keep to the schedule. “I felt very alone.”

Those close to Fiennes are used to seeing his eyes go suddenly gauzy in mid-conversation. “I know when not to ask what he’s thinking,” Joan Washington says. “It’s not for you. He’s gone into his room.” Vaines calls it “Ralph going to Narnia—processing stuff. You know at some point he’ll come back again.” This is the prerogative of stardom—what Anthony Lane has called “that mysterious confluence of presence and reserve”. But “Coriolanus” brought out something new: a nurturing, even parental side to Fiennes, which empowered others and infected them with his passion. John Logan had felt reassured that “this was not a vanity project for an actor”. I left Belgrade with an equally strong conviction: Ralph Fiennes has reinvented himself, and “Coriolanus” is just the beginning. 

Coriolanus is expected to open in the spring

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