Actor Fiennes at home with complex characters

Movies

September 01, 2005|By Sam Allis | Sam Allis,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The Rosetta Stone to decipher Ralph Fiennes just may be, of all things, Maid in Manhattan, the ghastly movie he made with Jennifer Lopez that came and went like a cold sore in 2002.

The man can deliver a shimmering portrait of Nazi evil in Schindler's List or a brilliant Hamlet on Broadway, but what he can't uncork is a guy -- an unintrospective, untortured male of the species -- and it was a guy he had to play in the Lopez disaster.

"I've always ... I've always ... I don't know ... I've never been part ... of what they call clubable," he says with a fractured elegance. "I distrust being part of a self-conscious group. I mean, the whole thing about the guys going down to the pub together. ... I've always, somehow ... I'd rather go by myself. That's still true today."

Imagine, then, the challenge he faced in playing an orthodox male lead -- a handsome, pedestrian American politician -- in an orthodox romantic comedy.

"I didn't pull it off, really," he says. "It's a simple enough part. That's probably a challenge for me -- to do what someone like Hugh Grant does so well. That sort of effortless, just-being-present-and-let-the-comedy-happen thing. I admire that. I find that hard. I can access inner tension quite quickly as an actor, but to have that guy thing -- `Yeah, yeah, that's fine' -- it's not second nature to me."

And yet here is Ralph Fiennes (pronounced "rafe fines") playing a guy of sorts in The Constant Gardener, the big commercial movie for grownups adapted from the John Le Carre novel that opened yesterday. In it, Fiennes is an unobtrusive British diplomat stationed in Kenya named Justin Quayle. But this man has depth, and he's going to fool you.

Quayle is married to Tessa, a firebrand who secretly investigates rumors of criminal behavior of a pharmaceutical company testing a drug in Africa. Tessa, played by Rachel Weisz, is murdered, and Quayle abandons his job and gardening avocation to pursue the truth of her life and death. In doing so, he reveals a tensile strength absent to the viewer at the film's beginning.

The role of Quayle is not a transformative one -- he doesn't become someone else -- but an emergent one, revealing what had been there all along.

"It was latent in him. He doesn't change character," says Fiennes, a classically trained British actor. "It's not in his nature to be confrontational or create any tension. Good gardeners have to have a very quiet tenacity and insistence about them. This constancy, this determination, is in Justin, but it's not high octane. I like that, that people don't get it all in the beginning."

Fiennes talked to Le Carre about the character. "He said Quayle's the sort who'd be good at rowing or playing rugby. I know rugby players. They run hard and they tackle hard, but then they go off the field and they can be quite gentle."

But Fiennes, 42, would never be credible in a rugby scrum. He is no Daniel Day-Lewis, another reedy Brit who morphed from the scrawny, handicapped Christy Brown in My Left Foot into Hawkeye, the frontiersman in The Last of the Mohicans. Fiennes lacks that physicality. He is rigged for other things.

He's rigged for the title character in Onegin, the film version of the Pushkin classic directed by his sister, Martha, about a tortured Russian aristocrat. He's rigged for the adulterous Maurice Bendrix in the film version of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, for Dennis Cleg, the schizophrenic in the film version of Patrick McGrath's Spider, for Count Laszlo Almasy in The English Patient. He's rigged rather well for Justin Quayle too.

Fiennes carries a fragile beauty. When he tells J. Lo. in Maid in Manhattan that she's beautiful, she replies, "So are you." The great surprise about him is his grin. It's a sweet, seditious thing that reminds you of your kid brother. It's a huge event that shatters all of the gorgeous planes on his face and, for a moment, liberates you from his blue eyes.

Fiennes rolls them when the word "tortured" is used to describe his roster of characters. "I know, I know, I've had this all day," he says at the end of a flood of interviews. "I hate this word. I don't see them as tortured. I see them as people. I suppose I'm drawn to the chance to show the complexity at the center of the drama."

But why not the challenge of the mundane? "Simple characters are hard," he replies. After Maid in Manhattan, could he ever shine in a romantic comedy? Under the right circumstances.

"The great romantic comedies -- there's quirkiness, a looseness, an eccentricity to them. They're built on neuroses and people who have obsessions -- stuff we all recognize. It feeds back into the complicated stuff. The dramas have just shifted over and been made humorous."

For film events, see Page 30.

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