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Home » ‘Four Quartets’ Review: Ralph Fiennes Channels T.S. Eliot’s Majesty

‘Four Quartets’ Review: Ralph Fiennes Channels T.S. Eliot’s Majesty

In college one night, I got very stoned and read T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” I was gripped by it, and felt I understood it — a feat I’ve never come close to accomplishing since. Yet I don’t think I was under some delusion about having glimpsed the poem’s essence. Eliot was a mystic doomsayer whose verse was torn, as if by shrapnel, with fragments of misanthropy and heartbreak. He channeled the despair of the 20th century but did it with a glint of rapture (to contemplate it was to be alive). To connect with his poetry, you almost need to leave rationality behind, to give yourself over to the experiential quality of Eliot’s words. I think the reason I could grasp Eliot while stoned is that I forgot I was reading “poetry,” forgot that I was facing stanzas arranged in elegant pieces on a page. Instead I was living each word, each phrase, as its own moment.

And that’s just what Ralph Fiennes allows us to do in “Four Quartets.” The movie is based on the one-man performance of Eliot’s epic poetic masterpiece that Fiennes performed on stages throughout the U.K. in 2021. The performance was staged and directed by Fiennes himself, and the movie, shot shortly after the show had completed its run, was directed and edited by the filmmaker Sophie Fiennes, who is Fiennes’ sister.

In “Four Quartets,” Ralph Fiennes walks on stage, barefoot, wearing an unbuttoned-at-the-top gray shirt, untucked beneath a brown corduroy jacket, which gives him the look of a severely charismatic professor. He sits down on a wooden chair next to a plain wooden desk, but this humble set gives way to a grander (if still simple) one, now framed by two looming rectangular blocks that look like sponge-painted versions of the monolith in “2001,” with a glowing orb of light at the center of them. In between poems, there are sustained thrums of musique concrète (also very “2001”). The message is clear: This one-man performance of a monumental work published in the early ’40s, during the bitter thick of World War II, is going to be a leap into the cosmos, maybe into the void.

Hands resting on his thighs, Fiennes recites, slowly and methodically, the opening lines of Burnt Norton, the first Quartet. “Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. And time future contained in time past.” Listening to those lines today, it’s hard not to think: That’s either a profound observation or the plot of a Marvel movie. I say that only to evoke how aspects of Eliot’s concerns have wormed their way into popular culture. “Four Quartets” is a meditation — on love, old age, war, London, poetry, krishna, the unity of man and earth, the unity of the ocean and everything around it, and the unity of time itself. At one point Fiennes faces outward with doleful force, gazing into the camera as he says, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” That’s Eliot speaking directly to us. The rest of the poem evokes the reality around us that we can’t see, and maybe cannot bear.

Fiennes, in his beautifully grave way, slows the poem down for us, speaking the words with rapt deliberation, so that we live in their moment. He delivers the “Four Quartets” as if the entire 16-poem suite were a single fractured Shakespearean monologue, lucid and searching, scorching and incantatory, all revolving around the desire to know. Fiennes sings like Gielgud, declaims like Richardson, roils like Olivier, lends lines a mocking undercurrent like Ben Kingsley, and imbues it all with a world-weary grandeur that is very Ralph Fiennes. He recites Eliot’s poem as the music it is, and you feel that Eliot, through the drama of Fiennes’ presentation, comes across as nothing less than the 20th-century Shakespeare, reaching for the cosmos but driven by a deconstructive impulse, a need to take apart the forces that shape the very questions he’s asking.

There are occasional cutaways to scenes of nature (lush gardens, rocky shoals), which help break up the 80-minute movie but feel too literal-minded to have been necessary. Any way you edit it, a film of “Four Quartets” is going to be a stark if weighty meal, designed for a highly self-selected audience. Yet Fiennes, with his pale glare, channels the poem like a human mood ring. He taps the transcendence that T.S. Eliot poured into his magical language of distress. “Four Quartets” is held together by Eliot’s obsession with time as the force that will save us, if only we could dissolve the false barrier that separates past, present, and future. They’re all there, says Eliot, in the holy now. “Four Quartets” can be a challenging sit. But if you’re willing to go there, you will glimpse the now.

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