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Not himself

A private man in a public profession, Ralph Fiennes works hard to bare someone else's all to the world in 'The Duchess.'

September 18, 2008|Sam Adams | Special to The Times

Ralph FIENNES is not an easy man to get close to. Generally regarded as one of the finest actors of his generation, breathing the same rarefied air as the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis, he is similarly reluctant to engage in the cycle of personal revelation that usually accompanies publicizing a movie.

While promoting "The Duchess" at the Toronto International Film Festival this month, Fiennes recalled a lengthy interview with a writer for a glossy magazine who grew exasperated with his refusal to discuss his private sphere. "She got mad and said, 'You don't want to be known,' " Fiennes said, cutting a minimalist profile in a buzz cut and a trim black suit. "I don't want to be. I don't want to tell you everything, open up my heart. Why should I?"

Where audiences are involved, Fiennes is more comfortable playing a character than being himself. He recalled returning to the stage after a charity performance playing the garrulous Berowne in "Love's Labor's Lost" to ask for donations and suddenly being struck by stage fright. His voice jumped several octaves as he imitated his throat constricting in fear. "I'd been playing an extremely extroverted, high-energy character and I suddenly realized I had a whole other set of nerves that I got awkward about."

In "The Duchess," Fiennes plays William Cavendish, the duke of Devonshire, a brusque and often cruel man who relished the exercise of power but not the politicking that came with it. Where he is awkward and withdrawn, preferring the company of his dogs to that of other people, his wife, Georgiana (Keira Knightley), is a celebrated hostess and fashion plate, an English analogue to her friend Marie Antoinette. By way of synopsizing their relationship, biographer Amanda Foreman, on whose book the film is based, relates a moment when Georgiana flops playfully into her husband's lap and he, without apparent malice, drops her to the floor.

Georgiana, an indirect ancestor of Lady Diana, was the 18th century equivalent of a movie star, a beloved figure who drew crowds wherever she went. The duke, by contrast, is something of a cipher. "There aren't really records of his inner life, which is a blessing and a curse," said "The Duchess' " director and co-writer, Saul Dibb. "That means you've got very few clues to try and hold onto to get inside him, but it also gives you the possibility to imagine that inside this very repressed man is something more complex than a brute or a villain."

Even so, the duke is plenty villainous. His casual disregard turns ruthless and deliberate as Georgiana's pregnancies fail to produce a male heir (the film cuts back significantly on her numerous miscarriages). He commences an affair with Georgiana's best friend, and when his wife has the temerity to suggest she should have a lover of her own, he responds, "I don't make deals. Why should I? I have it all."

In an era when wife-beating was sanctioned by law, the duke's exercise of patriarchal privilege is unapologetic. But Fiennes plays him with a heavy heart, as a man who, in his rare reflective moments, regrets the duties he is bound to enforce.

"On the page," Fiennes said, "he was written with a kind of overt cruelty, which I tried to undermine, with Saul's agreement. I thought, if he's that cruel, the audience are ahead of you. He's got to be a man finding his own way, who believes what he's doing is right."

"Ralph's interpretation was so surprising and wonderful," Knightley said. "In the script, and this is not to do them down, it read as quite a simply villainous character. He's made him weirdly sympathetic, and I think that's very clever."

Although the script affords the duke a few, likely anachronistic, moments of explicit regret, his dilemma is more poignantly conveyed in the shades of Fiennes' performance. While he does not flinch from reminding Georgiana of the limits of her freedom, he does so with bowed head and lowered voice. Even at the point in which he rapes her, he seems to do so as much out of obligation as anger, which, as Knightley points out, only makes the act more terrifying.

"Even the time he takes to answer a question is part of his character," Dibb said. "I think he was very keen to make the details really speak. He says so much in a kind of grunt, or a look, and he probably thought that within those spaces was the place to convey all kinds of unease and complexity, and hint at what's going on."

Although Fiennes is more loquacious in person, he is still careful not to give too much away. "Being an actor means asking people to look at you," he said. "I guess I accept that. But it's a profession in which the job is to show another world and other people. You may access it through bits of yourself, and your imagination and experience, but actually, in the end, you're not playing yourself."

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