Ralph Fiennes is well known for big villains like Voldemort and Schindler’s List or dramatic epics like The English Patient or his recent tenure as James Bond’s boss M. However, Fiennes’ impressive body of work includes numerous small, eclectic gems. Here are a few unusual throwbacks and underrated choices.
- The Duchess
Keira Knightley (Atonement) stars as Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire in this 2008 18th century tale featuring duke Ralph Fiennes and friendly rival Hayley Atwell (Agent Carter) amid glorious estates, award winning frocks, harpsichords, feathers, and divine interiors. An arranged marriage begets an awkward wedding night and pressure to produce an heir. Sons are more important than daughters, abused women are blackmailed with their rightly or wrongly begotten children, and men are allowed to get away with anything. Though dressed in old speaketh, we know times haven’t changed, and the likable ensemble doesn’t hit the audience over the head with on the nose commentary. Despite her disappointing marital expectations, Knightly is a poised outspoken duchess dabbling in Whig politics. The tumultuous affairs and scandalous love triangles don’t go for saucy skin, and the despicable turns are tolerable, thanks to Fiennes and his tough talking but stunted, disinterested, and of his time aristocrat. Historical liberties are certainly taken and the mismarketing pushing the Lady Di/Spencer connections may have hurt the film’s reception. However, the progressive history makes for a well put together and surprisingly modern costume drama.
- Red Dragon
William Blake paintings and tattoos consume Tooth Fairy killer Fiennes alongside an all-star cast including weary FBI agent Edward Norton (American History X), opportunistic reporter Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote), and Hannibal Lecter himself, Anthony Hopkins, in this 2002 prequel to The Silence of the Lambs. Classical music, 1980s soirees, and culinary kills establish the sophisticated game of wits as the frenetic Danny Elfman (The Nightmare Before Christmas) crescendos punctuate character revelations and well done horror elements. Of course, the back on the job protege surpassing the criminal mentor to get inside the head of a new killer before he strikes again is certainly familiar framework. However, the one on ones, ensemble personality, and families at risk don’t underestimate the audience. Flashlights, tape recorders, crime scene photos, and home videos accent the against the clock pursuits. Bloody bedrooms and bite marks let us deduce the chilling as the reluctant Norton persists after our disfigured, shy yet meticulous killer. We see the dilapidated manor with echoes of abuse before Fiennes’ face, but Emily Watson’s (Breaking the Waves) upfront compassion can’t save him from his disturbed transfiguration and godlike delusion. Looking but not seeing voyeurism and dissociative mirrors layer the read between the lines references, and thanks to social media, we all understand the who we become versus who we really are distortion. This multilevel investigation doesn’t fall back on today’s ease of access, relying instead on fine writing and characterization to bring this taut, alluring prequel full circle.
- The End of the Affair
This World War II parable from director Neil Jordan (Interview with the Vampire) and author Graham Greene (The Third Man) provides conflicted spirituality, existential hate, and sophisticated romance. Typewriter clickety-clack, vintage cinemas, dreary rain, period patinas, and Art Deco hotels set off the subtle hand under the cuff intimacy and steamy stockings. At times, the framework does feel fifties with over the top obsessions and sweeping, on the nose music. However, the performances accent the unreliable writer embellishments and literary life imitating art elan as the timeline moves between 1939 encounters and the two years since D-Day rekindling. The Blitz rages amid prayers and miracles as the deceptions and private detectives escalate to professions of love that save some and damn others. Us mere humans are too weak to keep our spiritual promises, but who else can inattentive husband Stephen Rea (The Crying Game) trust but the man who knows his wife so intimately? Fiennes is on form as our cranky writer captivated by the perfectly bittersweet, always in red Julianne Moore (Boogie Nights). He complains it’s easy to write about pain when you’re angry enough at God to almost believe he exists. Unfortunately, the jealous, possessive men fail to comprehend her profound experience until it’s too late. The tragedy probably isn’t shocking anymore, and this may seem too talkative to many despite the spice. Thankfully, the well paced revelations and complex relationships make for a deeply moving, adult melodrama.
- Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights
This aptly named, largely faithful but streamlined 1992 adaptation from director Peter Kosminsky (White Oleander) and screenwriter Anne Devlin (The Rainbow) captures the depressing love and gothic spirit of the 1847 novel. Haunting, windswept locales and period costumes add ambiance; be it glamour or decay as money and class shape the misfortunes of our disparate, tormented soulmates. It does help to be familiar with the book, for the lookalike namesakes and narration framework can be confusing. However the captivating emotional train wreck resonates thanks to ghosts, graves, romance borne on the moor, and deathbed vows to never rest in peace. Beautiful performances anchor the anguish, and Juliette Binoche (Chocolat) showcases the lost innocence and heartbreak amid the bitter twists of fate as both Cathy and her daughter Catherine. Fiennes debuts onscreen as the tightly wound, black clad, and unkempt Heathcliff. He’s tortured and conflicted, lovelorn yet villainous and vile. Despite his Byronic anger, we root for a reconciliation between the living and the dead. Literary fans will be delighted, and with its PG rating, teachers may enjoy introducing the next generation to this unforgettable tale.
- The Grand Budapest Hotel
Picturesque postcard designs accent Wes Anderson’s (The Royal Tenenbaums) 2014 quirky comedy as numerous stars pepper the silly vignette mood. Dialogue within the internal monologue, timeline transitions, and kitschy exposition set the dilapidated hotel scene before intertitle chapter cards travel back to the grandiose 30sheyday. Zany zooms, action pans, and in and out of focus views capture the choice reds, vintage trains, delightful architecture, and golden chandeliers while tight camera angles convey the cramped servant’s life. Modern sarcasm lifts the who’s swindling who heists with great zingers and smooth talking tongue in cheek as our lobby boy learns the ropes from Fiennes‘ sermon giving, serving all the rich blondes concierge. Genuine character friendships sustain the increasingly preposterous, read between the lines farce and larger than life, on the run adventure. Some overly clever double crosses and pretentious winks do too much when the lavish production already handles the high brow complexity. Redundant, intentionally unreliable narration and black and white montages are also abrupt compared to the preceding nostalgic whirlwind. However, frame within a frame embellishments capture the outlandish travels and whimsical ski jumps. This is an entertaining, intelligent piece with a careful, award winning attention to detail that takes more than one viewing.
Honorable Mentions: Spider, Oscar and Lucinda, Onegin, Strange Days