With his piercing on-screen appeal, Ralph Fiennes (along with his film legacy) has proven to be anything but boring. Since his feature-length film debut in the 1992 version of “Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights” Fiennes has transformed into a cinematic force, with a range that continues to surprise viewers again and again. To some, he’s known primarily for playing the iconic Lord Voldemort from the “Harry Potter” franchise, yet to others, he’s known for portraying everything from dashing romantic leads to terrifying real world antagonists. Needless to say, Fiennes has done it all and then some.
But which of Fiennes many beloved performances stands in a class all their own? Well, with the help of this list, we hope to solve such a complicated puzzle. Featuring everything from his notable work on lesser-known gems to his franchise accomplishments, we’ll take a look into the ever-evolving career of this talented performer to determine which of Ralph Fiennes’ movies stand among the best of the best. So grab a bowl of popcorn and let’s examine the catalog of work from this Academy Award-nominated (and Tony winning) actor and film director.
Alfred Pennyworth — The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)
What is there not to love about “The LEGO Batman Movie”? Not only does it wonderfully poke fun at the Caped Crusader’s legacy, but it dives deep into the character’s mythology without seeming forced. But outside of its comedic brilliance and a top-notch performance by Will Arnett as the titular hero, the movie’s secret sauce is Ralph Fiennes’ take on Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler, Alfred Pennyworth.
From his first line, Fiennes delightfully evokes Alfred’s classic vibes while incorporating his own adorable touches to the Wayne family’s beloved attendant. Unlike some recent cinematic Alfreds (such as Jeremy Irons in the Zack Snyder films), Fiennes’ version balances being comforting with honesty. He wants Bruce to become a better person, but he doesn’t cross the line of being too sassy or aggressive, instead choosing to focus on the parental angle of Alfred.
That said, why should Fiennes’ take on Alfred be considered one of the actor’s best? Simply put, it all concerns the earnest quality of Fiennes’ performance. From his moments of tenderness when connecting with Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) to his sweet crime-fighting catchphrases, it’s impossible not to feel Alfred’s genuine love for his offbeat chosen family because, at the core of every “Batman” story, Alfred is the glue that holds everything together. Fiennes confirms that point perfectly.
Heathcliff — Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1992)
Despite being one of the messier adaptations of the classic tale, “Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights” from 1992 does have its charms. For starters, there’s Mike Southon’s cinematography, which faithfully depicts the haunting nature of the novel, and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s sweeping score. Yet, arguably the best part of the movie is young Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of the complicated Heathcliff. Why? Because he grasps the intricacies at the heart of Brontë’s story in ways actors in other versions of “Wuthering Heights” fail to do.
To those who read “Wuthering Heights” in their youth, Heathcliff might have come across as the idealized tragic hero. The reader can’t comprehend how anyone would ever romantically reject him — let alone the story’s heroine. Yet, with Fiennes’ take on the character, it’s easier to see the truth of Heathcliff and how he maybe isn’t a guy to hang a poster of on the wall. That’s not to say that Fiennes’ enchanting looks don’t make Heathcliff dreamy from the start, but it is satisfying to watch Fiennes embrace the troubling elements at the core of Heathcliff’s actions.
Still, this “Wuthering Heights,” along with some aspects of Fiennes’ performance, is far from perfect, especially when it comes to its awkward pacing. Nevertheless, Ralph Fiennes’ performance remains a bright spot decades later.
Chris Marshall — Maid In Manhattan (2002)
It may seem odd that Ralph Fiennes has only starred in one by-the-numbers romantic comedy. The definition of elegant, he has one of the smoothest voices in Hollywood, making him an obvious choice for projects of this kind. Yet, if there were only going to be one typical rom-com on Fiennes’ resume, “Maid in Manhattan” is worthy of that distinction. It contains all the requisite genre elements that Fiennes evokes in his performance.
For example, his character, politician Chris Marshall, requires an actor who is refined yet relatable, dashing but down-to-earth — all of which Ralph Fiennes perfectly portrays. He also plays up the role’s Manhattan fairy-tale prince vibes, making the movie’s already campy mood even more endearing. Audiences also get to see Fiennes in a comedic role alongside Stanley Tucci, who makes any film a treat by default.
Yet, the reason Fiennes’ work in “Maid in Manhattan” deserves to be mentioned is his dynamic with Jennifer Lopez. From their hotel meet-cute to the pair’s ballroom dance, you buy into the notion that Fiennes’ Chris and Lopez’s Marisa are into each other because of the genuine chemistry they have. And with the couple’s iconic bits of flirting (especially when Chris compliments Marisa’s dress), you can’t help but root for them.
The Duke Of Devonshire — The Duchess (2008)
At the beginning of Saul Dibb’s “The Duchess,” the titular figure, Georgiana Spencer (played by Keira Knightley), is a wide-eyed dreamer with extreme views on romance. Yet, when she realizes that her future husband, William Cavendish, aka the 5th Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), isn’t the dreamy spouse she had in mind, it’s clear that this match is far from perfect, a fact made even more apparent by Fiennes’ elaborate performance.
At first glance, Fiennes plays the Duke of Devonshire as a calculating high-society figure who’s easy to hate. He only thinks of how Georgiana can improve his appearance amongst his peers and is obsessed with her giving him a male heir. However, underneath the character’s cold-blooded exterior, Fiennes does his best work playing into the character’s deepest desire. – All William wants is to be loved, even if the problematic ruler pursues his goals in the wrong way.
Ultimately, “The Duchess” makes this list because it shows how Fiennes can take an otherwise cookie-cutter role and transform it into something captivating. From playing into William’s insecurities about his social status to showing the duke’s messed-up methods of courtship, Fiennes doesn’t leave any acting stone unturned.
Pharaoh Rameses II — The Prince Of Egypt (1998)
When discussing the DreamWorks’ gem, “The Prince of Egypt,” people often point out the mature handling of the source material and the incredible Hans Zimmer and Stephen Schwartz music. Yet, one often overlooked aspect is the voice acting, especially Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of Moses’ vengeful adoptive brother, Pharaoh Rameses II.
From his humor to his relatable struggle to please his father, Fiennes makes it easy for audiences to feel a tender connection to the younger, more innocent Rameses. But as the film progresses, Fiennes turns up the antagonism just enough for viewers to love to hate the character while still feeling sympathy for the aggressive ruler. It’s a tightrope act that’s hard to sustain. Still, Fiennes easily conveys the duality within Rameses until the character’s climactic demise.
Nevertheless, it might still seem strange to see Fiennes’ work in “The Prince of Egypt” end up on a list of his best work, but if you’ve seen “The Plagues” musical sequence, you know why this role deserves a spot. Sure, Fiennes’ singing abilities may not be Carnegie Hall-worthy. However, he still carries a tune well enough to sell the character’s deeper feelings like an absolute pro.
Harry Hawkes — A Bigger Splash (2015)
While most viewers know Ralph Fiennes for his traditionally antagonistic roles, some of his best work comes when he plays a character for whom the word “restrained” doesn’t exist. Take, for example, Fiennes’ work in Luca Guadagnino‘s “A Bigger Splash” (a loose remake of Jacques Deray’s “La Piscine”). Fiennes plays Harry Hawkes, a music producer who still pines for his ex-lover and collaborative partner, Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), so much so that he crashes her vacation villa uninvited.
A bold character, Harry stands out in a crowd — just like his printed shirts. Yet, when you strip away all of his charisma and obsession with skinny dipping, Harry is an insecure extrovert with no understanding of boundaries, all of which Ralph Fiennes depicts without a hint of embarrassment.
The main reason to watch Ralph Fiennes in “A Bigger Splash” is to see the actor living his best cinematic life. From his over-the-top interpretative moves to the Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” to his karaoke performance of “Unforgettable” with Dakota Johnson, it’s impossible not to fall under Fiennes’ spell. This might not be his more nuanced work, but how can you not enjoy watching Fiennes and Swinton dance and eat copious amounts of fish? Spoiler alert — you can’t!
Lord Voldemort — The Harry Potter Series (2005 To 2011)
Let’s face it. There’s no easy way to discuss the “Harry Potter” franchise. It’s a brand that continues to bring joy to those who embrace its magical themes of friendship. Yet, author J.K. Rowling’s damaging comments about gender identity have tainted any goodwill many once had towards the property. This is made even more disappointing when some (including, unfortunately, Ralph Fiennes) denounce the so-called “bullying” directed toward Rowling and her controversial mindset. Simply put, finding the comfort that Hogwarts and Butterbeer once offered can be challenging (for this writer included) nowadays.
Even with Rowling’s troubling viewpoints, it’s hard to forget the significance of the “Harry Potter” films and the cinematic brilliance of Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of Lord Voldemort. Although many readers had their own vision of how the character would appear when adapted to the big screen, nothing could prepare audiences for the downright haunting perfection of Fiennes’ interpretation of the famous villain.
From his creepy interpretative dance moves to his chilling, whispery voice, Fiennes balances Voldemort’s terrifying nature with a brilliant mixture of rage and grace. The way Fiennes plays up Voldemort’s toxic traits (along with his distinct noseless appearance) makes him one of the greatest antagonists in cinema history.
Justin Quayle — The Constant Gardener (2005)
Adapted from John le Carré’s novel of the same name, “The Constant Gardener” stars Ralph Fiennes as Justin Quayle, a British ambassador stationed in Kenya trying to unravel the truth behind the murder of his activist wife, Tessa (played by Rachel Weisz). As the story unfolds, viewers get glimpses into the pair’s romantic past while uncovering the intense life-altering mystery at the center of the homicide. Ralph Fiennes’ performance is as touching as it is compelling.Thanks mainly to director Fernando Meirelles’ documentary-like approach to the material, Ralph Fiennes’ turn as Justin Quayle comes across as more down-to-earth than his often calculated approach to character development. It’s particularly refreshing, especially during the movie’s most difficult moments, to see Fiennes dial down his theatrics and show the courage and fear at the center of his character, making Justin seem more authentic.His performance aside, the true magic that makes “The Constant Gardener” a high point in Fiennes’ career is watching the talented actor work alongside Weisz. Due to Fiennes’ typical on-screen charms, you buy into Justin’s love for Tessa, which makes his dedication to uncovering the secrets behind her death even more believable.
Harry Waters — In Bruges (2008)
In Martin McDonagh’s classic, “In Bruges,” a rookie hitman named Ray (played by Colin Farrell) and his mentor, Ken (Brendan Gleeson), find themselves lying low after Ray’s assignment is a failure. Their chaotic situation worsens when their crime boss, Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes), gets further involved, forcing the pair to go on a ride wilder than Mr. Toad’s landmark Disneyland attraction. Even though his screen time is brief, Fiennes’ unhinged energy makes this odd story even better.
On the outside, Harry might seem like the most gentlemanly crimelord. However, he’s a beast who erupts like an active volcano. Fiennes portrays this element (and all of Harry’s other “charms”) with cartoonish, unbridled rage, making his interactions with Gleeson and Farrell darkly hilarious and downright spooky near the film’s conclusion.
Even with Harry’s questionable actions, Fiennes makes his character a likable antagonist. Deep down, Harry’s the kind of guy who believes in justice and forbids gunfighting around kids or pregnant women. On the other hand, he’s also known for smashing phones to pieces in a fit of rage. Either way, it’s easy to see why Fiennes’ work here ranks so highly, even if we wish there were more of him in it.
Chef Slowik — The Menu (2022)
In the grand scheme of pop culture, only a few chefs are genuinely terrifying. One such example (aside from Gordon Ramsay) is “The Menu’s” mysterious master of cuisine, Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Beginning with his haunting introduction, the film establishes this world-renowned culinary expert as a godlike figure who keeps his once “normal” life hidden from his celebrity clients. Fiennes’ delicate, calculated performance makes Slowik more than just a cartoonish antagonist.
While Ralph Fiennes has undoubtedly played his fair share of unnerving individuals, Slowik falls into a slightly different category. With his creepy use of claps and his menacingly calm voice, he (unlike Voldemort) doesn’t use melodramatic displays of villainy or horrific magic to strike fear into the film’s ensemble. Instead, Slowik is a master of sizing people down to their lowest psychological point, making them feel like they’re the scum of the earth as they eat some of the world’s most incredible food.
However, Fiennes’ portrayal of Slowik’s emotional destruction at the hands of Anya Taylor-Joy’s Margot is a masterclass in acting. From his fearful eyes to his nervous burger delivery, the insecurity at the center of Fiennes’ character’s every action is palpable.
Francis Dolarhyde — Red Dragon (2002)
There are few characters scarier than Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) from “The Silence of the Lambs.” Not only does he have iconic lines that would send shivers down anyone’s spine, but his psychological methods, combined with his penchant for cannibalism, make for a foe who’s just as charming as he is menacing. However, when 2002’s “Red Dragon” rolled into theaters, Ralph Fiennes gave Anthony Hopkins some competition as the Tooth Fairy, aka Francis Dolarhyde.
From his menacing workout introduction to his flame-fueled curtain call, Ralph Fiennes makes Francis more than just the delusional murderer that audiences would expect. Instead, Fiennes gives Francis a tortured soul that makes you sympathize with the metaphorical monster he’s become. Yet, he never lets you forget his horrific sins, making his transformation into the Red Dragon even more terrifying.
However, the most underappreciated aspect of Fiennes’ work in “Red Dragon” (and why it ranks on this list) are the moments he acts alongside Emily Watson as his blind romantic obsession, Reba McClane. Not only does the pair’s believable chemistry serve as a great juxtaposition within their relationship, but these moments allow Fiennes to show Francis’ internal drive for human connection — as twisted as that may seem.
Charles Van Doren — Quiz Show (1994)
Based on real-life TV scandals of the 1950s, Robert Redford‘s “Quiz Show” examines America’s fascination with fame, celebrity, and heroism. Handsome university instructor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) becomes the contestant on the popular quiz extravaganza, “Twenty-One,” and (to all of America’s surprise) defeats reigning champion Herb Stempel (John Turturro.) As Charles’ popularity climbs, U.S. Congressional lawyer Richard N. Goodwin (Rob Morrow) begins to investigate the truth behind all of Charles’ success, causing the game show star to crumble under the weight of his well-crafted public image.
Ralph Fiennes is the perfect choice to play a charming real-life nepo baby with country club appeal. He’s got the smile and the intellect to match. As with other roles on this list, the deeper insecurities of Fiennes’ Charles make the character even more captivating. You can see the constant guilt in Fiennes’ expressive eyes.
Watching Fiennes go head-to-head with Rob Morrow is a treat. From their casual conversations to their nail-biting confrontations, both actors wonderfully play into the notion that their characters know what the other is thinking. It’s a thrilling cinematic tango that proves Fiennes is at his best when paired with an equally energetic partner.
Amon Göth – Schindler’s List (1993)
In Steven Spielberg‘s haunting Holocaust film, “Schindler’s List,” audiences experience the story of Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson), a German businessman who eventually aids hundreds of Polish-Jewish refugees by having them work at his factory. As it unfolds, viewers cross paths with some unforgettable real-life figures from the era, including the horrific Nazi antagonist Amon Göth, played by Ralph Fiennes.
In this breakout performance, Fiennes doesn’t shy away from the emotional disconnect that people like Göth have about their genocidal actions. That brilliant acting choice makes every sequence Göth is featured in immensely terrifying — the best example being when Göth casually shoots random individuals from the top of his villa. There’s a simplicity to the character’s brutality that Fiennes captures perfectly without ever going too over the top with his interpretation of the infamous figure.
So why does Göth outrank his other iconic roles? It all has to do with the potential the then-newcomer showcased during his turn as Göth. Very few actors could play a role this multifaced and mature sp early into their film career, but Fiennes, without a speck of doubt in his eye, did it as if he had been in a hundred movies before.
László Almásy — The English Patient (1996)
In Anthony Minghella’s “The English Patient,” Ralph Fiennes plays László Almásy, the mysterious patient at the story’s center. As the plot unfolds, viewers (along with a nurse named Hana, played by Juliette Binoche) discover Almásy’s love affair-fueled history. As Almásy’s memories are uncovered, everything becomes more intense for him and those around him.
From the moment Ralph Fiennes steps into “The English Patient,” it’s easy to see how he would become known for his intense performances. Not only does Fiennes have the matinee idol good looks that evoke Hollywood’s golden age, but his powerful acting choices make you believe his character was a once-great aristocrat who has become a man tortured by the past. This makes it even more understandable why Hana would fall under the spell of the “ghosts” from Almásy’s stories.
Almásy ranks this high amongst Fiennes’ best roles because the part foreshadows his future acting brilliance. Thanks to the success of “The English Patient,” Fiennes became a master at playing the tragic lover in a doomed relationship who wears his passion just as well as a good tuxedo. László Almásy may not be the boldest performance on this list, but it’s the one that still makes viewers cry to this day.
Lenny Nero — Strange Days (1995)
To put it bluntly, Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days” is an underrated treasure of the sci-fi genre. Filled with continuously relevant messages, this bold film noir depicts how two flawed individuals and a wild piece of technology (the SQUID) factor into the chaotic events surrounding a racially motivated hate crime. It features everything, including excellent direction from Bigelow and memorable performances that drive the movie’s brutal but essential narrative. The best of those performances (aside from Angela Bassett’s, of course) is Ralph Fiennes’ complicated take on the story’s unlikely hero, Lenny Nero.
With his long locks and endearing smile, Lenny is the kind of guy who can charm anyone into a good time. It’s a quality that Fiennes hones in on towards the beginning of Lenny’s arc, proving why the character was once a successful detective. As the film progresses, Fiennes pulls back Lenny’s extroverted curtain to show the character’s inner darkness, eventually revealing the emotional denial at Lenny’s core.
That being said, Fiennes’ work in “Strange Days” ranks as one of his best because of the raw vulnerability he throws into the role. From the intensity of his SQUID viewing sequences to the delicious unraveling of his character’s emotional strength near the third act, Fiennes doesn’t hold anything back in this electric performance.
Monsieur Gustave H. — The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
If you’ve long admired Ralph Fiennes’ work (like this writer), you know there’s a hilarious side to the often intense actor. No performance shows off this side of the renowned actor better than his work in Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Fiennes plays Monsieur Gustave H., the offbeat and magnetic concierge of the film’s titular resort, who (much like the movie itself) is larger than life.
With his royal purple attire and dashing mustache, Gustave is the perfect balance of cartoonish and refined, which Fiennes plays with tremendous Looney Tunes-infused energy. From his wild love affairs with mature women to his upscale goals of keeping the Grand Budapest in order, Fiennes makes every one of Gustave’s actions equal parts charming and annoying. It’s a combination that works because it allows the audience to laugh at the absurdity of Gustave while simultaneously falling in love with him, despite his frustrating aspects.
Yet, what makes this Fiennes’ most outstanding work is how it defies expectations. Fiennes has rarely been allowed to show off his comedic side, and “Grand Budapest” proves how much of a shame that truly is. Ralph Fiennes is more than just a highly acclaimed dramatic actor, and much like Gustave, he has a quirky side that should be examined more often.
Read this next: The 15 Best Anthony Hopkins Roles Ranked
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/Film – The 16 Best Ralph Fiennes Movies, Ranked
Author: Dalin Rowell
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March 11, 2023