Fiennes plays Dickens, who, in addition to being one of the most prolific writers of any generation, was also a gifted actor. And Fiennes, nominated for Oscars for his roles in Schindler’s List (1993) and The English Patient (1996), (and familiar to younger fans as Voldemort), certainly can understand that.
Fiennes spoke to former Telluride Guest Director Geoff Dyer from Russia, where he is shooting his latest film.
GEOFF DYER: Invisible Woman is an absolutely terrific film. Was it the product of a longstanding interest in Dickens?
RALPH FIENNES: It’s actually the opposite. I was ignorant about Dickens. I’d only read one Dickens novel, Little Dorrit. I suppose I had a weird reaction against his huge, mammoth popularity. Then I read Abi Morgan’s Invisible Woman and straight away was gripped by the story, by Dickens, of course, but also by Nelly Ternan.
The film is called The Invisible Woman, but it’s actually full of women whose stories haven’t been told.
Yes, exactly. No biographer can skirt the unfortunate way Dickens treated his wife Catherine. She is a very sad, tragic figure, and there’s no way around it.
But what I found most fascinating is the question: At what point did Nelly Ternan agree to be the mistress of Charles Dickens? How did she decide to give herself to him physically in every way? How did that happen? That was the big puzzle.
Nelly Ternan could never publicly be acknowledged as Dickens’ partner. She could never marry Dickens. Dickens was obsessed about secrecy. At some point she became this person who was kept in this house, and she accepted it.
Of course, men and women in the Victorian era always made accommodation with each other to be lovers discreetly, outside of the public view. Dickens is a huge catch, and the prospects for Nellie as an actress were not great. Here is this man offering her everything.
How does one tell that story? How do you show it cinematically, this weird crossroads of decision, compromise and awkwardness?
Peter Ackroyd in his biography of Dickens writes, “It seems almost inconceivable that theirs was in any sense a consummated affair.”
I know Peter Ackroyd has argued there was no consummation, but he’s in a minority. Others have argued that there was at least one child, perhaps two.
I came away with the feeling that, in Victorian society, as long as you were never public in sexual matters, you would do what you wanted. Once you turned up at someone’s house with a mistress, a line had been crossed. It didn’t matter what you did behind the bedroom door or who you went to see at the end of the night. If you arrived at the dinner party with your wife or your husband, that was fine.
Your film is very un-Dickensian, and I intend that entirely as a compliment. While Dickens was the creator of many great, vivid characters, he’s not the most nuanced of novelists, whereas I felt this was such a beautifully psychologically and morally rich picture.
That means a lot. That’s where I think Felicity is so brilliant. She conveys a complicated interior life. You feel there’s a whole world inside this woman.
I was fascinated by the women’s and men’s bodies underneath these crinolines and corsets and waistcoats and frockcoats. They sweated and needed to go to the loo and had sexual urges and had to digest food. If you study the photographs, you can see the not-fully-shaven chin and the frayed lapel of a coat, and you start to feel the life in that moment.
Tell me a little bit more about your amazing performance. After a certain point I forgot I was watching you. Some magical process enabled me to go back in time and actually see the great Charles Dickens.
I didn’t really want to direct and play a role in a second film, but as I worked on the screenplay with Abi Morgan, I couldn’t help but be drawn to Dickens. There was this huge heart. It’s extraordinary what he did.
Geoff Dyer is author of four novels, five genre-defying titles and three collections of essays, including Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, winner of the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.
THE INVISIBLE WOMAN | England, 2013, 111m | Director: Ralph Fiennes
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas