Written by T.S. Eliot after World War II, Four Quartets is an examination of who we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re going. When the time came, Eliot set out to write a poem that might produce the effect of music on the senses using key themes like memory and time, as well as contrasting rural and urban environments, to explore the auditory imagination. “Why, for all of us, out of all that we have heard, seen, felt, in a lifetime, do certain images recur, charged with emotion, rather than others?” Eliot asks in his essay The Use of Poetry.
“It deals with endless and essential questions on the nature of time, the journey of the soul in life,” says Ralph Fiennes. “It’s endlessly mysterious, but there are also ways of speaking it that are conversational and accessible.”
The actor adds that, “Four Quartets is something that’s been floating in and out of my awareness over the years…I’ve known it since I was quite young as we had the T.S. Eliot vinyl recording. In the first lockdown I gave myself little things to engage my mind and memory, and I thought I’d learn Four Quartets. And then various things I thought I’d do in the early part of that year went away—films and so on—and this sort of transitioned. Could Four Quartets be put in a context where it was not just recited, but given an appropriately judged theatrical context?” That idea for theatrical context led Fiennes to collaborating with theatre producers James Dacre of Royal & Derngate Theatres, and Danny Moar of The Theatre Royal Bath. They attached Production Designer, Hildegard Bechtler, Sound Designer, Chris Shutt, and Lighting Designer, Tim Lutkin, to put the show together under Fiennes’s direction. The show toured regional theatres before ending up at The Harold Pinter Theatre in London.
This is where I come in, sometime in September 2021, after the heartbreakingly disappointing collapse of another film (collapse not death, I still hope!) that I had been developing for two years, Executive Producer Shani Hinton called me about producing Sophie Fiennes’s filmed version of Four Quartets. I immediately jumped at the opportunity and began putting together budgets and schedules (with Sophie, Shani and producer Martin Rosenbaum) in the knowledge that we would have to film over three days before Christmas and after the theatrical run finished. Not exactly a lot of time.
The theatrical run ended on Saturday 18th December. Props, sets and lighting rigs were packed up and taken almost immediately to Canning Town, filming would be taking place after 2 days prep in the new Mulryan Centre for Dance. The location move was thanks to Ben Elton already being booked in to film that week in the Pinter theatre. After two days of tireless and expert work by a surprisingly small crew of technicians, the set was ready for Ralph to return. By the morning of the 21st, filming was underway and by 5pm on the 23rd, filming was complete. All this achieved while a new COVID variant swept through the capital. Thankfully, due to the diligence of the crew, access to testing kits, on-set medics and some luck there was not a single case among the crew.
To complement the expert theatrical team that had been assembled, Sophie and the production team had to put together an equally skilled film team to capture the performance in such a short period. First was Director of Photography, Mike Eley, who had worked with Ralph on many projects in the past and was the ideal person to capture this unique performance. According to Mike, “Ralph’s performance in Four Quartets exemplifies his commitment to theatre and stage-craft. His ability to embody the piece is testament to his love of the work and his determination to explore its meaning and his understanding of it. It is total absorption”. Together Sophie and Mike decided on 16mm film as the best way to film, due to “its texture, depth-of-colour and ability to evoke emotion…it was an easy sell for me. It’s a beautiful medium.”
Once filming was complete, with Christmas and New Year passed, in anticipation of a release towards the end of 2022, Sophie set about editing the film herself, while also using the time to assemble a smaller ever changing group to prep and shoot in the four locations mentioned in the poem—Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, Little Gidding—on four different days between November 2021 and March 2022. “There are vivid descriptions of these places, sometimes real and sometimes fantastical, but what is extraordinary is that what he describes is still there, down to a patch of bramble!” says the director. “The passage of the sun, which he also refers to, has clearly not altered. So we carried out some forensic poetry and created landscape sequences as a form of visual exposition, breaking momentarily from the hermetic, abstract world of the stage, and into the material world to build a separate layer of time and place within the film.” These sequences transport the audience to another space, liberating the audience from the atmosphere of the theatrical world, hopefully giving insight into the world as Eliot experienced it without being too literal or obvious in the telling.
Sophie’s last film, Artificial Things, was a reimagined version of the stage production devised by dancers from the Stopgap Dance Company exploring human interdependence, strength and vulnerability. Similarly her film about Grace Jones, Bloodlight and Bami, uses many aspects of performance to tell the story of a unique artist, using various strands and styles to create a portrait. For that film, Sophie followed Grace around the US and Jamaica. The New York Times review noted, “She enjoys Ms Jones and her big, complicated family but is careful not to insert herself—or too much technique, for that matter—into family meals and various reminiscences.”
Sophie scrutinises and looks for truth in a situation without disturbing it. Similar themes and style can be found in Over Your Cities Grass will Grow, “a film that requires a calm and concerted investment of attention, and a kind of cultivated mental quiet. It is a valuable film that aspires to create an artistic response to its subject matter” according to Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian.
Fiennes brought all these qualities to filming Four Quartets. To make something really worthwhile, it was essential to capture the performance as if for an observational documentary. The intimacy that one finds in much of Sophie’s work was vital to this piece and is among the most challenging elements to replicate, while also being one of the strongest aspects of the film. The immediacy that is captured so beautifully was vital for Ralph: “What I love about theatre is the very simple thing that you walk on to a space, and you start something, you create something immediately. Even as I get older, the simple essential magic or possibility of that is endlessly fascinating—so simple and so profound at the same time.” Sophie adds: “I have seen all of Ralph’s stage performances, but Four Quartets felt essential to document.” She continues: “seeing it on stage left me with the sensation of having travelled far in space and time and experienced a huge world. As I left the theatre I looked back at the relatively small space where it had all happened, it seemed miraculous, impossible. In translating Four Quartets to the screen, a central aim was to retain the spatial re-inventions Ralph conjures through the poem’s own structural, tonal and narrative shifts.”
My first memory of Ralph Fiennes was in The English Patient and Quiz Show. Fiennes’s performance in Anthony Minghella’s stunning adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient is an extraordinary example of stillness, inner turmoil and unspoken emotion. Fiennes gives an incredibly moving portrayal of a man trapped by his identity and world events around him: a private man content to keep himself to himself. He is modest to a fault, his skills are practical and his intelligence is private. On the other hand Charles Van Doren in Quiz Show is a man who wants people to know what his father doesn’t seem to get, that he is smarter and more interesting than people believe. This turns out to be his downfall and his ambition leaves a legacy that he never escaped. Fiennes again employs a moving stillness, his performance so precise and specific.
While he remains best known to contemporary audiences for The English Patient, the James Bond films and, of course, as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, it is in the theatre that some of his most compelling performances have been. As Antony at the National Theatre in 2018, Fiennes gave “an unforgettable image of a man confronting his own desolation” (Michael Billington, The Guardian). In her review of 2015s Man and Superman, Susannah Clapp praised Fiennes who “marvellously suggests both absolute confidence and potential unease…slightly bent and swaying, apparently propelled by the fountain of his own words. He is a man possessed, and yet each word is perfectly registered.” In Ibsen’s The Master Builder (2016), he was both ‘brilliant’ (BBC) and a “finely measured mixture of wit, vigour, prickliness and anxiety” (Evening Standard). In Richard III (2016), his “take on the character is not to make him in any way charming, although the actor’s irrepressible comic skills generate laughs, for example when he pretends in jest to attack the young princes, like he was ‘just kidding’. Under the layers of dissemblance, he’s not kidding at all. Nor is he any kind of a sympathetic victim of a superficial, beauty-obsessed culture that demonises disability. This Richard is just a very nasty piece of work, through and through” (The Hollywood Reporter). All this rambling is to say that there is no one better to watch performing T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. The perfect combination of performer and material. Added to that the unobtrusive and collaborative, observational point of view makes for a really surprising and special experience for the audience.
Many great performances are lost to the sands of time, never to be seen again (maybe that’s what makes some of them so great). While Four Quartets may not be a film for everyone, I believe there can be something for anyone. It requires a certain amount of investment from an audience and a piece that will hopefully become more and more profound to the viewer with every view.