WHEN HE TOOK THE STAGE AS Hamlet in London in March of 1995, everything seemed perfect for Ralph Fiennes. Smitten fans snapped up blocks of tickets, and, oh opening night, Demi Moore and Emma Thompson led a standing ovation. When the show moved to Broadway in May critics hailed the theatrical return of the then-32-year-old English thespian, fresh from movie-star-making turns in Schindler's List and Quiz Show. Amid the transatlantic hubbub, Fiennes's romantic life seemed the picture of bliss. He and actress Alex Kingston, married in 1993 after eight years of couplehood, were photographed strolling hand in hand in a London park, she in paint-spattered sweatpants. "Happiness," gushed the newspaper Today, "is a star called Hamlet."

But something was less than princely in the state of Denmark. By that fall, Fiennes's marriage had crumbled. Then the curtain went up on the new woman in his life: Francesca Annis, the acclaimed British stage actress who had played Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, to his Hamlet. Herself a mother (of three), Annis also happens to be 17 years his senior. Fiennes broke the news of the relationship to the estranged Kingston in March 1996 on the set of her Moll Flanders miniseries: "He arrived, all bright and breezy, and said that he was in love with Francesca Annis," she told The Daily Telegraph. By the time Fiennes smoldered into matinee idolhood in The English Patient later that year, the British tabloids were in a tizzy. Some branded Annis a "scarlet woman"; others attributed the matchup to the flagrantly Oedipal spin of the pair's performances in Hamlet or to the 1993 death, from breast cancer, of Fiennes's beloved mother, Jini.

At the time few guessed that the romance would weather the furor. But friends now see a deep connection between the reserved, outwardly chilly Fiennes and the confident, strong-willed Annis. "She loves him and he loves her—that's the key," says English Patient producer Saul Zaentz, who calls Annis "a warm, witty" woman who "doesn't take any crap, in the best way."

But Annis has had to deal with the misgivings of her mother, Mariquita, 84, who told newspapers she felt sorry for Annis's former live-in lover, photographer Patrick Wiseman, and the pair's children. "Ralph is a young man who may want children, and Francesca, although she looks so wonderful, is not a young woman anymore," Mariquita said to the Daily Express. For his part, Francesca's father, actor-director Anthony Annis, 84, believes his daughter knows best. Last New Year's Eve, he says, Francesca brought a grinning, "very pleasant" Fiennes to his costume party. "Francesca has always been young and looked young," her father adds. "Age has never bothered her very much."

With two careers running at full throttle, the couple have little time for togetherness. Fiennes, now appearing in the art-house romance Oscar and Lucinda (and starring with Uma Thurman in this June's The Avengers), maintains a four-story Victorian house in London's artsy Notting Hill, where he sometimes drops in to the neighborhood's ultrahip wine bars. Annis lives in a modest flat in nearby Shepherd's Bush near daughters Charlotte, 19, and Taran, 17, and son Andreas, 13. Fiennes—who has reportedly taken up yoga, a favorite pursuit of Annis's—seems more "relaxed" lately, says Oscar and Lucinda costar Ciaran Hinds. "I see him more at ease with himself."

Last year, Fiennes even tried his hand at golf in a round with Avengers costar Sean Connery and producer Jerry Weintraub. "He had never played before, and watching him try to hit a golf ball was a lot of laughs," says Weintraub. The otherwise low-profile pair are often spotted at the theater. For Fiennes's birthday in December, Annis took him to see the West End hit Chicago. "It's what they have in common," says Anthony Annis.

Theater also provided the spark for Fiennes and Kingston, who met when both were 20 and students at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Fiennes had been immersed in the arts by his bohemian parents, Mark, a landscape photographer, and Jini, a novelist who gave Ralph, at age 8, a recording of Laurence Olivier as Hamlet. But when Fiennes's career took off, Kingston felt left behind. "Everybody wanted to work with him, and she was still going on auditions," says producer Zaentz. Kingston later told the Telegraph she worried about her globe-trotting beau being "in the company of women who were ready to drop their knickers." In 1993, with Fiennes distraught over his mother's illness, the couple married. "Somehow we thought the wedding was going to heal everything," Kingston said. "But that was crazy, of course." The two divorced last fall. Kingston joined TV's ER as frisky Dr. Elizabeth Corday; she told The Chicago Tribune she moved to the U.S. to escape "that past and those memories."

Annis's ex, meanwhile, fired some parting shots. In a March '97 interview with The Daily Mail, Wiseman, now 60, alleged that Annis, whom he met in 1974, had left him three times for men "10 years, 14 years and now 26 years younger than me" and berated Fiennes for "breaking up a home."

Annis, says York Membery, author of a Fiennes biography, is "the ultimate classy crumpet...one of the great beauties of the English acting world." The stage veteran's credits also include 1984's Dune and the 1988 miniseries Onassis (as Jackie). A onetime aspiring dancer, she got her start as a teenager playing a handmaiden to Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. Fashionably radical during London's swinging '60s, she befriended scenesters such as Jimi Hendrix. In 1971, Annis played Lady Macbeth in Roman Polanski's Macbeth—appearing nude in one scene. When Hugh Hefner, one of the movie's backers, asked her to pose for Playboy, she replied, "I'm an actress, not a pinup."

Her latest role also caused a stir. In the Masterpiece Theatre miniseries Reckless, which aired in January on PBS, Annis played a married woman who falls for a hunky younger man. She knew the role was making a statement and put it to use when the Independent asked her her thoughts on the romance between the older woman and the younger man. "There is a good line in Reckless, when I say to [costar] Robson Green, 'What's attractive about older women?' and he says, 'I am not interested in older women, I am interested in you,' " she replied. "That says it all for me."

SAMANTHA MILLER
BRYAN ALEXANDER in London and VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Bryan Alexander,
  • Vicki Sheff-Cahan.