Ralph Fiennes. Credit: Getty Images
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The NS Interview: Ralph Fiennes

“God is a force – terror and enlightenment at the same time”

“God is a force – terror and enlightenment at the same time”

Was Coriolanus, your first film as a director, a story that you always wanted to tell?
Since I played it on stage I've had this building curiosity about it. The situations in Coriolanus are always with us all the time. Particularly this year, weirdly, with what's happening in the world, in the Middle East, economically everywhere - the sense of deep uncertainty, these things that are happening in the streets. They all happen in Coriolanus. They always happen. The tensions between authority and the people need to be heard, especially when they are suffering and they can't eat.

It's almost uncanny, the way the film seems to echo the Arab spring. Were you surprised by that synchronicity?
What is happening in the Arab world wasn't happening when I was making the film. The Iraq war was a strong background noise and Afghan­istan, too. It seemed that all the time there would be images coming in from everywhere, and [I thought]: "This is the world of Coriolanus, it's all ongoing."

Why did you choose to modernise the play?
When the so-called Green Revolution happened in Iran, images were coming in from people's phones. I came to the point where [I was wondering], "How do you set it?" I thought: "I want the audience to connect with this world." Men coming out of cars, with security guards, mobile phones, cameras - that's the world I'm in. That's our world.

Do you think we are telling enough new stories about our times?
Yes. My head goes to Ken Loach, who is always writing such socially aware things. I think we do. It's dangerous to make Coriolanus a conduit for a political viewpoint. I don't think that's Shakespeare's intention, myself.

Why did the character of Coriolanus appeal?
He's a soldier; he's been very much conditioned to be a certain way. I think there's no question Volumnia has instilled in him certain values, martial values of service, and he's become that thing she's wanted, and somewhere there is a death wish in him. In some ways he is rather stunted. He is a boy who has never been allowed to grow up. He is a kind of impossible, sad figure. In a way, I find him sympathetic. You shouldn't allow him into politics.

Do you think art is always political?
What moves me in art is how we question who we are as people. I don't like giving a wrapped-up package, [saying] "this is the answer", because all these political positions haven't given us an answer. I can't pretend that there is a huge message of hope at the end of Coriolanus. There is a sort of despair about our inability to find any assured structure for a benign harmony. We are incapable as human beings; we are not an attractive proposition.

That's what Shakespeare is ending up with. What is the answer, where do we go? I don't think at the moment we know.

How do you engage with politics?
There is a humanitarian impulse that one aspires to and there are days when one doesn't do it very well. But you go: "What can I do to help?" in the immediate sense. That's why I admire Vanessa [Redgrave]. But I am suspicious of overt political manoeuvring, of party politics.

What is the root of that impulse?
Sometimes you need people to prod you. It doesn't always come organically. I'm not very good at causes. I've had a relationship with Unicef and also the Constant Gardener Trust - a couple of experiences going abroad which were amazing. People have said: "Was it very upsetting going to places like Uganda?" But no, often it's uplifting.

Was directing terrifying, after years as an actor?
It was exhilarating. I think I felt a deep curiosity about it for some time, and people got behind it. On the first day, I was so full of adrenalin I didn't have time to be nervous, then my confidence grew as the shoot went on. The excitement is in seeing other performances come together. Seeing a scene, a world, a story, I think I have become more excited by what it would be like to make that world of a film happen. I love working on the design of it - on the clothes, the look, the location, on what a shot is doing, how a shot develops. I found all that exhilarating.

What does God mean to you?
God is not anything human. God is a force, God is chaos, God is unknown. God is terror and enlightenment at the same time.

Is there a plan?
There are bits of plans lying around.

Do you vote?
I do.

Is there anything you would like to forget?
Oh yes. But don't ask me what.

Are we all doomed?
Well, ultimately, yes.

Defining Moments

1962 Born in Ipswich to the novelist Jennifer Lash and Mark Fiennes, photographer
1983 Enters Rada in London to study drama
1994 First Oscar nomination for playing the Nazi Amon Goeth in Schindler's List
1997 Second Oscar nomination for title role in Anthony Minghella's The English Patient
2005 Plays Lord Voldemort in the fourth and subsequent Harry Potter films
2011 Directs and stars in film adaptation of Shakespeare's Coriolanus

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, President Newt

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times