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


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.”

A glance at Fiennes’s family history encourages the suspicion that he was always destined for some role in the arts. Born in Ipswich and raised largely in Ireland, he is the son of Mark Fiennes, a photographer and illustrator, and the writer Jennifer Lash. Four siblings have ended up creating something or other for a living. Magnus is a musician. Sophie and Martha are film directors. His brother Joseph is also a busy actor.

I am, of course, professionally required to get some skinny on his early life in Cork and Kilkenny.

“Yes, I know. Ha ha!” he says. “It’s funny. I just got a call to ask if I would be on The Late Late Show. Is Gay Byrne still doing it?”

Fiennes really has been away for a while. We’re on to Byrne’s second replacement now, old fellow.

“I remember my parents allowed me to stay up and watch it. That’s a clear memory. Yes, my parents moved to west Cork in 1973 and then, 18 months later, to Kilkenny. It was a great mad adventure.”

He goes on to explain that his mother, then “a practising Catholic”, always liked to stress her Irish heritage and felt an affinity with life on this side of the Irish Sea. Dad embarked on a slightly mad plan to build his own house while Mum set about educating the growing clan of small Fienneses. It sounds like a very Bohemian sort of upbringing. One imagines them acting out little plays and embarking on improvised art projects.

“It was a bit like that,” he says. “That was the atmosphere. Home schooling was very much like that. She did feel that the local schooling was a little too simple, and she decided to teach us herself. She had to change her mind eventually. Yes, it was very arts based.”

Eventually, his mother came into some money, and Fiennes was dispatched to Newtown School in Waterford. It seems unlikely that he would ever have found himself drifting into the City or embarking on a career as an accountant. Initially, he reckoned he might be a painter, and he spent time at Chelsea College of Arts. Does he still dabble?

“I don’t, actually,” he says. “But, directing these films, I have loved drawing: as visual notation for shots and camera ideas. That’s been great. I have loved carrying a camera around. My father was a photographer. He dropped it and then came back to it. It’s a shame he’s not around any more. I would like to have shared this with him. It’s come full circle in a way.”

Fiennes has had an eventful home life. He was married to the actor Alex Kingston from 1993 to 1997. A second marriage, to Francesca Annis, ended somewhat messily in 2006.

Nothing much interrupted the flow of work. Between turns as Voldemort in the Harry Potter series, he found time to play Hamlet, Mark Antony, Oedipus and a dozen other great roles on stage. It does sound as if, like Charles Dickens, he has an impressively unstoppable addiction for work. What is driving him?

“Ha ha! I don’t know,” he says. “I just did an interview with Andrew Marr, who is recovering from a bad stroke. It was impressive to see him being so determined and to see how courageous he is. He said, ‘The work is who we are.’ And I agree with that. I am challenged by work that is fulfilling. If you’re working in the theatre you have to be in for rehearsals at 10 o’clock. It’s a structure. That’s fantastic.”

A year and a half ago, at the end of Sam Mendes’s Skyfall, we learned that, as many suspected, he was set to take over from Judi Dench as M in the Bond films. That must have been a tricky secret to keep. One wonders whom he allowed himself to tell.

“I think I told virtually nobody apart from my agent and my publicist,” he says. “Some people said, ‘Who are you playing?’ They would be aggressively guessing, and I would smile and look back at them. But I never explicitly told anybody.”

It was an interesting piece of casting. Speculation about the identity of the next Bond is almost as febrile an activity as speculation about the next Doctor Who. Fiennes seemed to be a contender for at least a decade. His star rose just before the arrival of Pierce Brosnan, and he was still in the frame when that actor was shuffled into the wings. (Come to think of it, his name has also been mentioned in connection with the Doctor.) Did he have any conversations with Cubby and Barbara Broccoli, custodians of the Bond franchise, or was this all so much hot air?

“There was actually a conversation much earlier on,” he says cautiously. “About 20 years ago there was a sort of tentative conversation with Barbara. I did meet Cubby Broccoli. I don’t . . . It didn’t . . . Erm . . . Bygones are bygones. It wasn’t a path I chose then to pursue. I don’t think I would have been a very good Bond. Daniel Craig is fantastic.”

He probably made the right choice. It was a deal harder to escape from the 007 limelight in earlier decades. And if he wants pop-culture recognition – he almost certainly doesn’t – then he can revel in becoming the noseless face of He-Who-Must- Not-Be-Named to a billion Harry Potter fans. Meanwhile, he retains the sort of critical respect that once went the way of Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson.

Can he have any professional regrets? Maybe he wishes he’d become a painter after all. “No I have no regrets in that regard. No, not at all,” he says, faltering. “Well, there was one period after working at the Open Air Theatre [in Regent’s Park in London] when I was out of work for a while. There was a lean moment. I remember thinking, There’s nothing, there’s nothing. I felt, This is what they talk about. But it wasn’t long.”

He pauses for a few more ums and the odd ah. “No. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been very lucky.”

The Invisible Woman is released on February 21st

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