A Fiennes romance
Ralph Fiennes talks about his childhood in Ireland, the great Bond conundrum, and dipping into the complicated private life of a fellow English celebrity – Charles Dickens
Ralph Fiennes: “I don’t think I would have been a very good Bond.” Photograph: IBL/Rex
Behind the camera: directing his film The Invisible Woman, in which he plays Charles Dickens
On screen: as Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
On screen: with Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
On screen: as Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List
On hearing that Ralph Fiennes has decided to direct and star in a film about Charles Dickens – more particularly, about the novelist’s affair with the actor Ellen Ternan – any reasonable observer will start to ponder biographical parallels. Dickens was as much a performer as a writer: his readings were intense theatrical experiences. He also had to cope with modern levels of fame. Almost nobody was quite so well known in Victorian Britain.
That noted, Fiennes’s touching, elegant The Invisible Woman offers us a glad-handing public figure who seems very different from the somewhat reserved, even shy persona that hangs around Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes. Is this line worth pursuing?
“I felt his warmth and I noted a few spots of recognition,” Fiennes says in a caterpillar-quiet half-stammer. “I liked the man that came off the pages of the screenplay. Actually, I am not very social. But I liked who he was. There is a scene where he explains that he has this public thing, this ‘other me’. He escapes into the work. I understand that.”
There has been a lot of work to escape into over the past few decades. It is now more than 20 years since, after training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and serving time at the National Theatre, Fiennes broke above ground as the sadistic Nazi Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List. Within minutes he was being forced to field claims that he was the greatest actor in the world. There are worse things.
Particularly good at posh vulnerability, Fiennes went on to excel in The English Patient, Spider, The Constant Gardener and – a voice performance of staggering comic malevolence – Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Now he’s M in James Bond. So has he been escaping all that time?
“It’s the people who want to make money who trip you up,” he says. “In Dickens’s world that was the publishing people. In this world it’s the finance: agents, producers. The joy of the work is what makes it worthwhile.”
Nuts and bolts
Yet, by turning to directing, he has now dived deeper into that milieu. Suddenly, the nuts and bolts are his business. Producers can shield a director from only a portion of the financial mayhem. The Invisible Woman marks, after his fine 2011 take on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Fiennes’s second spell behind the megaphone.
“Well, yes, but, on the day, when you’re on the set shooting a scene and nurturing performance, it’s very different. Then you’re working. Emails and texts fade away, and you can disappear into what you are passionate about.”
What about the notion, posed by his version of Dickens in the film, that a certain portion of the successful performer belongs to the public? Fiennes has never seemed like the sort of fellow who would savour being backslapped in the high street. Though polite and articulate, he still seems slightly uncomfortable in the celebrity skin. You can’t imagine him doing a Tom Cruise and phoning fans’ mums on the red carpet.
“It’s a weird thing being recognised in public,” he says. “At the same time it’s an acknowledgment that people have seen the work. It’s a human reaching out to you. I had a tutor at drama school who said, ‘If you are an actor, you want people to look at you.’ That has to be true, I think.”