Since his chilling breakout role in Schindler's List, Ralph Fiennes has turned in consistently great work on both sides of the Atlantic, proving himself time and time again to be a versatile, charismatic performer in American and European films alike. He's typically affiliated with his villainous characters, but he's excellent in any kind of role — he can be a charming romantic lead, a precise comedic ensemble player, an action hero, and a reliable supporting performer. He's equally well-equipped to bring gravitas to heavy projects and a sense of cheeky whimsy to lighter affairs. Here are some of Ralph Fiennes' best film roles.
<i>The Grand Budapest Hotel</i> (2014)
One of Fiennes' funniest, most multifaceted performances serves as the centerpiece of Wes Anderson's sprawling, opulent period comedy. He plays Monsieur Gustave, the beloved concierge at the Grand Budapest Hotel.
Gustave is a deceptively complex character — prickly yet loyal, pretentious yet empathetic. His perfect blend of sophisticated class, fast-paced deadpan dialogue, condescending dismissiveness, and precise slapstick timing makes his performance one of the most hilarious and nuanced characters in Anderson's filmography.
If you liked The Grand Budapest Hotel, you might also enjoy: The French Dispatch (2021)
<i>Schindler's List</i> (1993)
Fiennes' stateside breakout role came with his terrifying turn in Steven Spielberg's harrowing Holocaust drama, in which he plays the Nazi antagonist Amon Göth. The actor's performance highlights the horrific mundanity of genocidal evil. He makes Göth seem like a fairly ordinary if aggressive man who goes about his everyday activities as anyone would, except he also commands his subordinates to commit mass murder on a daily basis.
Fiennes doesn't play the role as if there's a switch being flipped every time he commits an atrocity — he approaches murder with the same casual attitude as sipping a cup of coffee, which makes the movie unbearably tense any time he's on screen.
If you liked Schindler's List, you might also enjoy: Saving Private Ryan (1998)
<i>Quiz Show</i> (1994)
After Schindler's List, Fiennes' next movie was Robert Redford's Quiz Show, which charts the 1950s scandal that revealed game show Twenty-One to be a fraud, as its contestants were given the answers ahead of time.
Fiennes plays Charles Van Doren, the Columbia professor who was selected to defeat longtime champion Herb Stempel (John Turturro). Van Doren couldn't be more distant from the actor's Schindler's List character: he's thoughtful, charming, conflicted, and American (Fiennes nails the real Van Doren's upper-class New England accent). Most of Quiz Show's drama plays out on Fiennes' face during televised competition — at first, it's clear that he loves the attention and acclaim that his intellect brings, but he gradually deteriorates to the point where he can barely hide the regret and shame in his eyes as he sweats and stammers to further victory.
If you liked Quiz Show, you might also enjoy: The Insider (1999)
<i>In Bruges</i> (2008)
When hitmen Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) make a mess in Martin McDonagh's black comedy, their short-tempered boss Harry (Fiennes) travels to Belgium and impatiently tries to clean it up.
The actor has less than 20 minutes of screen time, but his limited presence is incredibly impactful nonetheless. Fiennes plays the character as though every piece of information he receives is the most annoying sound on the planet, so all of his responses are either hilarious verbal overreactions or disturbing outbursts of violence.
If you liked In Bruges, you might also enjoy: Seven Psychopaths (2012)
<i>A Bigger Splash</i> (2015)
Fiennes plays one of his most atypical characters in Luca Guadagnino's thrilling drama — Harry Hawkes, a chaotic, free-spirited music producer who disrupts the vacation of his ex-lover (Tilda Swinton) and her boyfriend (Matthias Schoenaerts).
Fiennes portrays Harry with a total shamelessness that makes his actions and mannerisms impossible to predict: he belts karaoke in bars full of strangers, unabashedly strips naked for impromptu swims, and dances to the Rolling Stones in loose, flowing shirts while bragging about his minor contributions to their recordings. His selfishness is deeply irritating, but he's so full of oddball charisma and humor that you understand why he's the life of the party wherever he goes.
If you liked A Bigger Splash, you might also enjoy: Closer (2004)
<i>The King's Man</i> (2021)
Four decades into his career, Fiennes became a full-blown action hero in this prequel to Matthew Vaughn's Kingsman spy series. Personal tragedy makes his character Orlando Oxford into a pacifist, but around halfway into the movie, he leaps back into action in an attempt to end World War I.
Fiennes is a worthy successor (or, technically, predecessor, as this movie is a prequel) to Colin Firth's gentleman spy in the original Kingsman: he jumps out of a plane, fights with swords, and climbs a mountain with elegant, precise physicality that convinces you of his character's consummate professionalism and skill. He's also quite funny when the script calls for wit, but still sells the more dramatic beats as well.
If you liked The King's Man, you might also enjoy: Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)
<i> Strange Days</i> (1995)
Kathryn Bigelow's underseen, underrated sci-fi drama Strange Days imagines a world where people can plug their brains into recordings of other people's memories, and casts Fiennes as Lenny Nero, a former cop who now deals these immersive virtual reality clips on the black market.
Lenny contains multitudes — he's manic but frazzled, always on the move and teetering on the edge of despair, but an effective salesman nonetheless. He's drawn into a mysterious conspiracy, and serves as a complex, charismatic guide through Bigelow's dystopian labyrinth, especially given his crackling chemistry with co-lead Angela Bassett. It's an odd, wonderful performance at the center of an odd, wonderful film.
If you liked Strange Days, you might also enjoy: Minority Report (2002)
<i>The English Patient</i> (1996)
In the Best Picture-winning World War II epic The English Patient, Fiennes further demonstrated his appeal as a conventional leading man to mainstream audiences. The film follows Fiennes' László Almásy through two distinct time frames — in the first, told through flashbacks, he's a dashing Hungarian cartographer who begins an affair with a colleague's wife (Kristin Scott Thomas); in the second, the same character is badly scarred from a plane crash and claims he has no memory of his previous life.
Fiennes is commanding as both incarnations of the character: he's rugged and standoffish in the flashbacks while remaining counterintuitively sympathetic, and he skillfully embodies regret and pain in the latter sequences.
If you liked The English Patient, you might also enjoy: Atonement (2007)
<i>Hail, Caesar!</i> (2016)
The Coen brothers' farcical tribute to 1950s Hollywood allows them to craft short, ridiculous comedic sequences on the set of fake movies in various genres. We see George Clooney goofing off in a Ben-Hur-esque biblical epic, Scarlett Johansson in an aquatic dance sequence straight out of a Busby Berkeley movie, and Channing Tatum channeling Gene Kelly in a meticulous tap dance scene.
But the most memorable sequence involves a highbrow costume drama director (Fiennes) attempting to draw a classy dramatic performance out of rising Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich). Fiennes makes it clear that his character has very particular standards, but also maintains a soft politeness in his interpersonal direction that results in a laughable persistence to elicit an impossible performance out of Hobie.
If you liked Hail, Caesar!, you might also enjoy: Bowfinger (1999)
<i>The Constant Gardener</i> (2005)
Fiennes plays a low-level diplomat who investigates the mysterious death of his wife (Rachel Weisz) in this conspiracy thriller about the pharmaceutical industry. His role is a tricky one to make compelling, as the character must seem smart enough to believably uncover a dangerous corporate scandal, but also oblivious enough to remain unaware of the shady dealings until his wife has been killed for uncovering them.
Fiennes' unsteady character mistakes his wife's secret activism for an extramarital affair, which means his quest for the truth is largely driven by distrust and jealousy, and the actor gracefully balances grief and suspicion.
If you liked The Constant Gardener, you might also enjoy: Michael Clayton (2007)
<i>The End of the Affair</i> (1999)
After the end of World War II, an unmarried novelist (Fiennes) reconnects with his former married lover (Julianne Moore), as they reminisce on their wartime affair. The actor delivers one of his more layered performances here, as many of his interactions are colored by deception and hidden motivations.
In scenes with Moore, he's trying to suppress his true feelings, and in scenes with her husband and a private detective who's investigating the affair, he's pretending that he never knew Moore's character intimately. Fiennes is fantastic at playing both sides of each scene — he's smooth enough to convince the other characters of his mistruths, but uncomfortable enough that the audience recognizes his lies.
If you liked The End of the Affair, you might also enjoy: The End of the Affair (1955)
Fiennes began his career on the British stage, and acted in a number of William Shakespeare's plays throughout his career, including productions of Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and The Tempest in London. The actor directed this film adaptation of one of Shakespeare's final tragedies, and also played the lead role — Caius Martius, a Roman general whose rapid rise and fall disrupts Rome's military and Senate politics.
Martius is a complicated figure that Fiennes defines by his sense of honor and endless rage. His sneering contempt for the common people of Rome clarifies that he's an elitist snob, yet he's so constantly betrayed and mistreated that his fury seems both righteous and misdirected. His hardened relentlessness makes his military prowess unsurprising, but also makes him thorny and unapproachable.
If you liked Coriolanus, you might also enjoy: The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)
David Cronenberg's psychological thriller Spider is too opaque and slow-moving to fully cohere, but that's no fault of Fiennes'. The actor plays the schizophrenic protagonist with an uneasy, quiet detachment, murmuring and whimpering through most of his time on screen. Yet Fiennes never gravitates toward bombastic cliches that make other neurodivergent characters feel condescending or hacky, as there are no dramatic outbursts or significant emotional breakdowns.
If you liked Spider, you might also enjoy: The Machinist (2004)
<i>The Reader</i> (2008)
The Reader, which earned Kate Winslet her long-awaited Academy Award, follows a teenage boy's affair with an older woman, whom he later discovers was a guard at a concentration camp during World War II. Fiennes portrays the adult version of the main character as he's confronted with his former lover's imminent release in the final portion of the movie.
The actor's German accent isn't as thick as in Schindler's List, as his physicality takes top priority. Each glance feels haunted by the weight of his character's troubling past, and he's resigned himself to a lifetime of numbness and repression. Even at the film's conclusion, when he begins to open up, he's still downtrodden and impassionate.
If you liked The Reader, you might also enjoy: Suite Française (2014)
<i>The Duchess</i> (2008)
In the costume drama The Duchess, Keira Knightley plays the Duchess of Devonshire, whose marriage to the Duke (Fiennes) breaks down as she fails to produce a male heir and falls in love with another man (Dominic Cooper).
The Duke is a steely, reserved character who never fails to make everything about himself, and he holds revolting attitudes toward women and marriage. Yet Fiennes portrays him with both thoughtful dignity and an unspoken sense of melancholy, which suggests that he feels as trapped by English society's gender roles as the protagonist does. He's a cruel, unlikable character, but Fiennes ensures that he's far from one-note.
If you liked The Duchess, you might also enjoy: Pride & Prejudice (2005)