With his electrifying gaze, elegant comportment, and lips that look as if they could breathe life into concrete, Ralph Fiennes has caused many a jaded filmgoer to reaffirm the existence of British sex appeal. Since 1993, when he first impressed international audiences in the decidedly unglamorous role of Nazi sadist Amon Goeth in Schindler's List, Fiennes has delivered performances marked by dignified passion and relentless intensity.
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The oldest of six children, Fiennes was born in Suffolk on December 22, 1962. His father was a self-taught photographer and his mother a novelist who wrote under the pen name Jennifer Lash, professions which virtually ensured a unique upbringing. Fiennes' family moved a number of times while he was growing up, and the children were encouraged in their creative pursuits. Thus, it is less than surprising that four out of the six Fiennes siblings went on to work in the entertainment business, with Ralph and his brother Joseph becoming actors, his two sisters a director and a producer, and another brother a musician. Originally wanting to be a painter, Fiennes enrolled at the Chelsea College of Art and Design before transferring to London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art to study acting. Following graduation, he joined the Royal National Theatre in 1987, and he became part of the Royal Shakespeare Company a year later. While a member of the company, he performed a wide range of the classics, playing everyone from Romeo to King Lear's Edmund.
Fiennes first became known to a wider audience in 1991, when he starred as the title character in the acclaimed British television production of A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia. The next year, he gained additional exposure, making his film debut as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Starring opposite Juliette Binoche, Fiennes glowered his way across the screen with suitable aplomb, something that he would do again to devastating effect the next year in Schindler's List. As the psychotic Nazi commandant Amon Goeth, Fiennes blended quiet yet absolute menace with surprising charisma (even more surprising given that he had gained over 30 pounds for his role) to such great effect that he earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and a British Academy Award for his portrayal. Fiennes' work in the film incited a flurry of interest in the actor, whose intensity and odd name (its correct pronunciation is "Rafe Fines") made him the subject of many a magazine article.
Interest in Fiennes only increased the following year, when, back to his normal weight and sporting an American accent, he played the more sympathetic (but tragically flawed) Charles Van Doren in Robert Redford's Quiz Show. Critics loved him in the role, and he further consolidated his acclaim two years later in Anthony Minghella's Oscar-winning adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, which won Fiennes Oscar and Golden Globe nominations as Best Actor. Given his newfound heartthrob status, many audience members were surprised to see Fiennes next turn up in the title role of the gawkish, ginger-haired minister with a gambling problem (playing opposite a then-unknown Cate Blanchett) in Oscar and Lucinda (1997). He gave a highly eccentric performance in the film, which received a mixed critical reception. Where Oscar and Lucinda was only vaguely disappointing, Fiennes' next project, a 1998 film version of the popular 1960s TV series The Avengers, was one of the most lambasted films of the year. Fiennes somehow managed to avoid most of the critical wrath directed at the film, and in 1999 he could be seen starring in no less than three disparate projects. In Onegin, directed by his sister, Martha, Fiennes played the title character, a blasé Russian aristocrat; in The End of the Affair, directed by Neil Jordan, he portrayed a novelist embroiled in an adulterous affair with the wife (Julianne Moore) of his best friend (Stephen Rea); while in Sunshine, directed by István Szabó, he played three different roles in a saga tracing 150 years of the affairs and intrigues of a family of Hungarian Jews.
If his roles to date had served to showcase Fiennes' talent at about the rate of a solid performance per year, 2002 provided a trio of diverse and demanding roles that would prove just how well he could perform under pressure. In Red Dragon -- the first of those efforts to hit stateside screens that year -- Fiennes' chilling performance as serial killer Francis Dolarhyde shifted between meekness and menace at the drop of a hat. Thankfully eschewing the grandiose theatrics of Hannibal for a tone more in keeping with the original Silence of the Lambs, the film proved a hit at the box office, and Fiennes' performance rivaled that of Ted Levine's in providing the film with a chilling villain straight from the pages of the most lurid true-crime encyclopedia (Fiennes' character was purportedly based on the exploits of an uncaptured Wichita serial killer who went by the name "Bind, Torture, Kill"). A few short months later, audiences were treated to yet another deeply disturbed characterization by Fiennes, that of a schizophrenic man haunted by his childhood in director David Cronenberg's dark psychological drama Spider, based on author Patrick McGrath's bleak novel of the same name. Fiennes' performance substituted the menace of Red Dragon with a more sympathetic protagonist whose memory slowly regresses to reveal a scarring childhood tragedy. No doubt having had his fill of disturbed characters that year, Fiennes once again caught audiences off guard with a disarmingly charming role in the romantic comedy Maid in Manhattan.
Fiennes would continue to find substantial and challenging roles in the years to come, most notably in his sister's film Chromophobia, the Merchant-Ivory film The White Countess, The Constant Gardener, the James Bond film Skyfall, and the ever-popular Harry Potter series, in which Fiennes played baddie Lord Voldemort. Fiennes would also earn accolades for directing and starring in a cinematic adaptation of William Shakespeare's war epic Coriolanus. ~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi