Ralph Richardson plays the boys butler who also takes care of the boy along with his cold wife due to the boy's parents frequently being away. Butler's are often characters that are either just someone in the background, an overly repressed man, or a witting supporting player. Richardson as Baines is nothing like any of the standard butler as he plays him him as much more of a man first a butler second whereas with most do emphasize the butler mannerisms Richardson certainly is a butler in the role in terms of his proper but he does not have it something that is a constant. Richardson portrays it far more as the job Baines does opposed to the job he was born to do as butler's usually are portrayed.
Richardson's character is a man seen through the perspective of Phillipe who sees him as some sort of great man due to the stories that Baines tells of adventures he had in Africa. Richardson is very good in these moments where Baines tells the stories. Richardson is good because he really shows that Baines is not really taking this all that seriously. It is not that he is telling a joke but as through the view of an adult perspective we see that he is simply telling stories to amuse himself as well as to hold the attention of the easily distracted little boy. Richardson shows that this intention is through subtle nuances that any clear thinking adult would easily see, but at the same time how they are really something a boy like Phillipe would not really be able to notice or understand.
Richardson is very good in realizing the two sides of Baines the one shown to Phillipe and the one that everyone else would be able to see. Importantly Richardson does not portray it as a ruse really, but rather just a simple way for him to keep the boy interested and entertained. Richardson in the forward projection of Baines is that of a likable confidant sort he speaks with a pleasant authority and it is easy to see how Phillipe takes to Baines as much as he does. Richardson does not have this as a facade in the traditional sense because when we see more of Baines it is not a reveal in the same way as we simply see him when he is not playing with the boy and just being himself.
Richardson is rather moving when we see the real Baines much more clearly as he is really just a quiet but sad man who is attempting to move away from his wife and to a far more caring woman named Julie. Richardson's performance is good because he portrays the scenes between Julie and Baines with a great deal of earnestness. Yes he does show a the deliberate method that Baines takes to keep Phillipe from spoiling his secret but Richardson is effective in the just the calm way he speaks to her. Richardson is very good in conveying both the sadness in Baines over the difficulty he is clearly having with his wife, but as well we see in his eyes a man with a woman he very much loves something we never see when he is with his wife.
The glimpses we see of Baines Richardson creates the right sympathy for the man through the genuine quality he gives the man in despite the lies he tells the boy as well as his wife. The sympathy he creates is very much needed in the last act of the film after an accidental death which the boy believes was caused by Baines but we as the audience know he is innocent. Richardson allows us to care for Baines is plight thereby amplifying the intensity of the scenes late in the film as he comes under suspicion for the death that he had not caused. Richardson is very good in these expressing the fears in Baines well in an internalized fashion as he tries to both tell the police the truth about what happened, but lie to try to keep the police away from the affair he is hiding at the same time.
Richardson's performance here works well really because he gives the character of Baines just the right complexity. For example when he is being interrogated Richardson is effective in showing all that's going on through Baines's head as he tries to deal with the troublesome interrogation, but when he is questioned about the tales he told Phillipe he dismisses them quickly. Richardson doesn't have it be life scattering for Baines in the least to say his tales with false because they merely something for him to say to keep the boy interested. Richardson gives a strong performance that finds just the right path for Baines making it so that he is sympathetic as just a normal human being but as well properly creates that image that Phillipe would not be able to see through although every else might not even notice.