June 6, 2023

The English poet TS Eliot composed the poems from which the work was eventually published as “Four Quartets” over the course of six years, and at the end of his literary career. The four elegiac, epic poems total more than 1000 lines and are dedicated to time and divinity. To perform them in a single staged performance is an exercise of memory and sheer will. In 2021, Ralph Fiennes accomplished the feat by performing Eliot’s “Four Quartets” in an acclaimed solo production that toured the UK, including a run at London’s Pinter Theatre. His sister Sophie Fiennes filmed an adaptation of the production after the actor’s live performances ended.

Her filmed version uses the original theatrical stage, with towering walls and minimal decorations. Her camera occasionally glimpses existence outside the theater – shots that evoke the view of Eliot’s England, a world of moss-covered stones and fields of grass-fed cows. But there is no visible audience, no sign of a human presence beyond Ralph Fiennes himself.

As an actor, Fiennes writhes, stomps and dances – delivering an animation of Eliot’s language, a powerful performance that treats the accumulation of verses into poetry like the strenuous, mathematical erection of walls in a cathedral. He speaks slowly, giving viewers time to understand Eliot’s words. But, despite all the efforts of the actor, the film around him does not match his euphoniousness.

The camera remains remote and the editing is prosaic, leaving no opportunity to add cinematic interpretation to complement Fiennes’ central performance. The static images are reminiscent of the conceptions of live theatre, where the audience’s eyes are limited by the proscenium and the angle of a particular seat to the stage. Fiennes brings the fire, but the air around him remains unmoved, not even by his embers.

Four quartets
Not judged. Running time: 1 hour 22 minutes. In theatres.