Suffering in “Fiennes” Style

By Dr Khalid Ali, film and Media correspondent

Caution: review contains plot spoilers

It is fair to call actor, producer and director Ralph Fiennes a ‘British National Treasure’. He first made his name playing several Shakespearean characters at the Royal National Theatre. After phenomenal success on stage, he took the role of ‘Amon Goth’, the Nazi-criminal in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 ‘Schindler’s list’ for which he received his first Oscar nomination. A long list of accolades including several Tony awards, BAFTAs, and Oscar nominations will be crowned by a lifetime achievement award in the forthcoming Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) in its 40th edition in November 2018 (

Always the accomplished actor, Ralph’s embodiment of challenging characters stands out in three landmark films; the bed-bound burn patient, ‘Count Laszlo de Almasy’, in Anthony Minghella’s 1996 ‘The English patient’, ‘Maurice Bendrix’, the doomed lover caring for his dying ex-mistress in Neil Jordan’s 1999 ‘The end of the affair’, and the mentally disturbed ‘Dennis Cleg’ in David Cronenberg’s 2002 ‘Spider’. In each of these films, Fiennes explores a different dimension of suffering.

In ‘The English patient’, Fiennes is the Hungarian cartographer, Almasy, drawing maps in the Sahara Desert in 1939. After a short-lived illicit affair with married Catherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), he is seriously burned in a German-led attack during World War 2. After being rescued by a Bedouin tribe, he is transported to an Italian monastery where he is cared for by nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche). What follows is a heart-breaking account of the physical and mental suffering of a burn survivor.

Intractable pain, dependency and isolation are everyday realities.  Reminiscing about lost love in flashback scenes brings brief moments of transcendence above misery. The evolving patient / nurse relationship between Almasy and Hana exchanging stories of disappointment is a poetic exercise in peer support; they have both been ‘burnt’ by love. Still healing can only come through reuniting with their loved ones.  The film brilliantly illustrates the recognised after-effects endured by burn patients; post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), sleep disturbance, anxiety and depression,1 as well as the psychological impact on nurses caring for burn survivors.2

‘The end of the affair’ is another story of doomed love where Fiennes is Maurice Bendrix, a novelist in a relationship with a married woman, Sarah Miles (Julianne Moore), during WW2. Sarah ends their affair abruptly after a bomb hits their secret meeting place in London. Years later, Bendrix reunites with Sarah and her husband, and becomes obsessed with finding out the reason why she left him.

It transpires that she had made a vow to God to end their affair if he does not die in that bomb attack many years ago. When Maurice escaped death, she kept her vow. When they meet again, Sarah is now dying of cancer; Bendrix becomes her loving carer, and starts to believe that ‘God’ exists. Spirituality is a key factor in supporting his well-being and Sarah’s at her deathbed; a similar theme was proposed by Spatuzzi et al in a study exploring the association between spiritual well-being, burden and quality of life in caregivers of cancer patients.3

In contrast to love being a key element of salvation in the films above, ‘Spider’ shows the aftermath of a loveless existence. Here Fiennes is ‘Dennis Cleg’, a middle aged man with paranoid schizophrenia. After spending years in a mental asylum, he is discharged to a ‘halfway house’ a community setting for supporting mentally ill patients to reintegrate back into normal social life.

Dennis comes from a dysfunctional family; his father killed his mother, or so it seems! This childhood trauma triggers persistent auditory and visual hallucinations. Trying to recover in a house dominated by a strict manager (Lynne Redgrave), with no loving family or partner exacerbate his illness.

It is interesting to note that all three films were literary adaptations; ‘The English patient’ based on Michael Ondaatje’s book, ‘The end of the affair’ a Graham Greene book, and ‘Spider’ based on Patrick McGrath’s novel. The films illustrate the power of love being romantic, platonic or filial as conducive to healing. In ‘The English patient’, Catherine Clifton says: ‘’the heart is an organ of fire’’. Its flames can burn, but they can also purify and heal.


1. Lawrence J, Qadri A, Cadogan J, et al 2016. A survey of burn professionals regarding the mental health services available to burn survivors in the United States and United Kingdom. Burns 42; 745-63.

2. Kornhaber R, Childs C, Cleary M 2018. Experiences of guilt, shame and blame in those affected by burns trauma: A qualitative systematic review. Burns,

3. Spatuzzi R, Giulietti MV, Ricciuti M, et al 2018. Exploring the association between spiritual well-being, burden and quality of life in family caregivers of cancer patients. Palliative and supportive care,

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