Ralph Fiennes looks and sounds like the Anglophile’s wildest fantasy of the smooth and smoldering British leading man. A well-wrought crucible of flinty, pensive eroticism in The English Patient and The End of the Affair, Fiennes has also spent much of his career upending the romantic expectations that come with cerulean eyes, impeccable bone structure, and cello-range dulcet vox. He put a baby-fattish face on the banality of evil as the Nazi commandant in Schindler’s List, donned the pressed politesse of corrupted WASP entitlement in Quiz Show, and picked through a tattered and scrambled memory as the mumbling schizophrenic in Spider. Fiennes has flirted rather awkwardly with mainstream Hollywood in recent years, wearing the frozen smile of a bewildered guest on the J.Lo luxury liner in Maid in Manhattan and sporting a full-body tattoo as the psycho killer in Red Dragon. But Fiennes, now a youthful 42, has one of his best roles to date in Fernando Meirelles’s The Constant Gardener (opening August 31) as Justin Quayle, a mild-mannered British diplomat to Kenya who unravels a vast Big Pharma conspiracy after the murder of his activist wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), whose righteous energies produced a crackling friction with her husband’s genteel tact.
“He’s quite a softly spoken and unassertive man who changes over the course of the film, but what I liked about it was that he doesn’t become a hero, but perhaps he becomes a fuller person, stronger; he emerges from himself,” says the suddenly ubiquitous Fiennes (who also appears in next week’s The Chumscrubber and whose autumn release schedule includes Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, and James Ivory’s The White Countess). In The Constant Gardener, Fiennes again plays a man who loves a doomed woman with conflicting allegiances—in The English Patient and The End of the Affair, she’s married; this time around, she’s wed to her secretive, dangerous investigative work.
Fiennes’s performance in Gardener is an achingly subtle progression of tonal shifts: self-amused gentlemanliness (he adds endearing dorky inflections to his vaunted sex appeal), shakily restrained grief, resourceful outrage (on par with Tessa’s, in fact), and finally, a transcendent resignation. “There’s a kind of Englishness there, a tradition of good manners and being attentive to other people that’s also like a wall, and you feel you will never get in. There’s layers of self-awareness, and then a self-deprecating sense of that self- awareness, and on and on . . . and he can see these things, he can laugh at himself.” Fiennes apparently can too, gently ribbing your Voice representative for a certain cover line of a decade ago (“WE HATE HAMLET,” regarding the 1995 Broadway production of Shakespeare’s tragedy for which Fiennes won a Tony).
Adapted from a John le Carré thriller densely tangled with intrigue and double crosses, The Constant Gardener achieves a galloping momentum and raw immediacy familiar from Meirelles’s City of God—especially in the Nairobi-set scenes, where Fiennes, Weisz, and a skeleton crew often maneuvered through real crowds and street life and engaged total strangers in the story. “Fernando keeps it very loose, kinetic; the camera can move anywhere, and he just dives in and uses what’s there,” Fiennes says. “He has a very strong intuition about spontaneity; he wasn’t precious about the script, and Rachel and I improvised quite a bit. He didn’t like it when he felt that script and dialogue were getting too present and stodgy in the middle of a scene, and we could toss them out. It became a joke on the set—’Too much talking! Talking, boring!’ ”
A strong polemical component resonates in The Constant Gardener, which condemns (fictional) pharmaceutical giants for colluding with corrupt governments to use the poorest and sickest in sub-Saharan Africa as unwitting experimental subjects for potentially toxic drugs. “A story that pushes people’s awareness buttons can only be good,” Fiennes says, “and I think Fernando’s managed to pull off this level of polemic without it getting in the way of a good story. But I think there’s a risk—I think many people would rather have a documentary.”
Is a fiction film particularly well equipped to do the kind of work we usually associate with investigative or advocacy journalism? “No, I don’t think it can be, especially if it has to serve a dramatic narrative,” Fiennes says. “Everyone asks questions about the polemical side of the film, but for me it’s also about a relationship between two people, their openness with each other, or their decision as a couple not to share, thinking they’re respecting each other’s privacy. People don’t always tell each other what they need to know—not because they’ve got anything to hide, like a love affair, but because they don’t want to invade. Our ability to be honest with each other, to say, I want this or I don’t want that, it’s all a distant cousin of what happens on the level of social policy, and it’s who we are, isn’t it? Politics starts in the bedroom.”