Toward the start of his new film The Constant Gardener, Ralph Fiennes, as Justin Quayle, a British diplomat stationed in Kenya, is told that his young wife Tessa may have been killed while on a research trip with another man. As the camera holds on him, searching for a reaction, Fiennes doesn't conjure up a rage or a gasp. He doesn't gush a stream of tears or obscenities. He moves hardly at all. Yet alert viewers will see his pale face turn a shade ashen. They will watch his spirit sink as he struggles to retain propriety. Somehow a symphony of grief, suspicion and copelessness plays lightly on his sharp, elegant features. "You can see what he's thinking, on his face," says Rachel Weisz, who plays Tessa with an ornery passion that complements Fiennes' implosive delicacy. "It's an incredible shot, almost a minute long, and you can see a thousand different thoughts cross his mind. There's a transparency to him." Indeed, an interior transparency. Subtly, he shows us an MRI of a decent man's heart at the moment it breaks.
A Fiennes performance is a miniature device with intricate moving parts. Movie directors often want their actors to "go bigger." Fiennes goes smaller--and inside. His onscreen speech is a mix of concealments and confidences, of whispers in a cave or under the covers. And he's not speaking softly just so you will be startled when he explodes. In a crucial scene he's less likely to shout than to stare or slouch--or sob, as he does, quietly but with naked intensity, in The Constant Gardener. It's his way of inhabiting all sides of someone like Justin. "I love it," he says, "when a film shows a character roundabout and through and through. A man may have wonderful qualities and also have weaknesses." Fiennes' strength is revealing the power, and the danger, that reticence masks.
That hint of feverish emotion behind a cool exterior made Fiennes a star as the silky Nazi sadist in Schindler's List and the enigmatic lover in The English Patient. But those hits, both of which won Oscars for Best Picture, are, respectively, 12 and nine years old. Since then, he has used his wattage to choose parts that suit or stretch his range. He is less worried about his payday or the films' potential grosses, although he can wince over those that failed. Of The Avengers, a high-profile flop, he rues "some spark not there" with co-star Uma Thurman and curses an inapt chapeau: "I looked crap in that bowler hat."
Other roles--as the lover torn by scruples in the film of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, as a deranged Londoner in David Cronenberg's Spider and as three generations of Hungarian Jews in Istvan Szabo's Sunshine--won him kudos, but the films fizzled at the box office. His two commercial successes could be considered coattail rides: as Hannibal Lecter's apprentice madman in Red Dragon and as Jennifer Lopez's prince charming in Maid in Manhattan. Casual moviegoers may recall that his name has an exotic pronunciation, then wonder, What ever happened to Rafe Fines?