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Honest Joe & The Fear of Fame
The Times - May 4, 1998

by Daniel Rosenthal

A movie hat-trick is going to make it hard for Joseph Fiennes to keep a low profile, says Daniel Rosenthal

The release on Friday of the romantic comedy Martha - Meet Frank, Daniel and
Laurence will secure Joseph Fiennes's admission to the burgeoning Britpack of
twentysomething film actors with pin-up looks and unmistakable screen presence.

But while Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Jude Law and Stuart Townsend, the stars
of Trainspotting, Wilde and Shooting Fish, were all able to emerge on their own terms,
with no preordained media profile, Fiennes steps into the spotlight wearing a label
which, for the moment, reads "Brother of the more famous Ralph".

Comparisons between Joseph, at 27 the joint youngest (with his gamekeeper twin, Jake)
of six Fiennes children, and the English Patient star, the eldest, were drawn even before
he was an acclaimed Troilus with the RSC in 1996, just five years after Ralph had taken
the part.

Those intent on comparing and contrasting can look forward to the autumn, when the
royal biopic Elizabeth will show Joseph's Earl of Leicester involved in a dangerous
liaison with the (no-longer Virgin) Queen played by Cate Blanchett, the Australian who
has just starred opposite Ralph in Oscar and Lucinda. Same genes, same classical role,
same leading lady - no wonder Fiennes shrugs and mutters "inevitable" when, midway
through the interview, his big brother is finally mentioned.

The first thing to say about Martha - Meet . . . is that Joseph exudes an easy-going
warmth which you will not detect in any of Ralph's cool, intellectually aloof screen
appearances. As Laurence, the hesitant bridge teacher who forms the most credible side
of the movie's improbable love rectangle, he provides a welcome foil to Rufus Sewell's
Frank, a Withnail-esque actor, and Tom Hollander's Daniel, an obnoxious record
company executive.

During a coincidence-packed 48 hours in London, this trio, best mates since boyhood,
are all smitten by Martha (blonde Julia Roberts lookalike Monica Potter), who has fled
her native Minneapolis in search of a fresh start.

Fiennes is the film's greatest asset, yet he really wanted to play Frank or Daniel. "The
dynamic of those parts is much greater," he says. "Until the last quarter of the story,
Laurence only exists through Frank and Daniel, and I was worried about appearing too
passive and boring."

During filming he found it hard to identify with Laurence's big dilemma - having to
choose between Martha and his pals - because his own upbringing meant he has no
friendships dating back as far as his characters. His photographer father, Mark, and
novelist mother, Jennifer (who died of cancer in 1993), uprooted the family to various
parts of the West Country, Ireland and London more than a dozen times: useful
training, perhaps, for a career which requires you to assume a new identity every few
months.

Martha - Meet . . ., the second feature from former RSC director Nick Hamm, is being
pushed on to 160 screens (more than any Film Four release since Trainspotting), so no
one can suggest that, because he is in a British movie, Fiennes is not being given a fair
chance to charm a mass audience.

Elizabeth will bring opportunity number two, and he has almost finished shooting the
Tom Stoppard-scripted Shakespeare In Love, in which he plays "a 29-year-old
playwright called Will", who falls in love with Gwyneth Paltrow and may or may not be
Shakespeare. This is some hat-trick - though it seems less enviable when you listen to
him profess his fear of fame.

"My only goal when I went to drama school was to do classical theatre and 'hold hands'
with great writers," he explains. "Now, with film, there is this terrifying beast of
publicity which launches you forwards. I wonder whether the speed of my career is being
determined through people trying to suck up the new young talent, or by the quality of
my work. In film it all boils down to money. You are just a commodity which is
manipulated."

Hollywood, whose "beast of publicity" has a far greater appetite than Britain's, has
already beckoned, and he rolls his eyes at the memory of one studio executive's
unsuccessful advances. "I was in this guy's office in LA two years ago and he said: 'Love
your work, Joe, love your work.' I'm thinking, wow, he came all the way to watch me as
Christ in Son of Man at the Barbican. I asked what he'd seen me in and he replied:
'Nothing' - without a flicker of irony. I thought, OK, that's how it works."

Memories of the "disgusting" tabloid coverage which greeted Ralph's divorce from Alex
Kingston, and subsequent relationship with Francesca Annis, does nothing to temper his
wariness of life in the public eye. The recent break-up of his six-year relationship with
actress Sarah Griffiths could pass unremarked, but the question of who he is or is not
dating may soon become earth-shatteringly important to certain papers.

His sympathy for Ralph's media exposure is matched by admiration for him "as an
actor and as a brother. He has a formidable command of language on stage, a great
understanding of metre, and this extra- ordinary command on celluloid."

Sooner or later a producer will try to cast the pair side by side, in some kind of Fabulous
Fiennes Boys scenario, perhaps with both competing for the same woman. Joseph
suggests that the seven-year age difference makes that an unlikely prospect. Not, surely,
if they can find themselves in separate screen romances with Blanchett? "Well, maybe
my getting Elizabeth was just really uninspired casting," he says. "Maybe they thought I
was Ralph."

 
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