Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones in THE INVISIBLE WOMAN | ©2013 BBC Films

Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones in THE INVISIBLE WOMAN | ©2013 BBC Films

Based on the nonfiction book by Claire Tomalin and scripted by Abi Morgan, THE INVISIBLE WOMAN chronicles the Victorian-era romance between famous, married, forty-five-year-old author Charles Dickens, played by Ralph Fiennes, and eighteen-year-old actress Nelly Ternan, played by Felicity Jones

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN marks Fiennes’ second stint directing himself in a feature film. He previously directed and starred in 2011’s CORIOLANUS, adapted from Shakespeare’s play. The actor, originally from Suffolk, England, earned Academy Award nominations for his work in SCHINDLER’S LIST and in THE ENGLISH PATIENT. Fiennes’ huge screen resume also includes playing Lord Voldemort in the HARRY POTTER films and the heir to the “M” title in the most recent James Bond feature SKYFALL. He won a Tony for playing the title role in the 1995 Broadway revival of HAMLET and was nominated for a second Tony for his work in FAITH HEALER.

At a round-table group interview for THE INVISIBLE WOMAN, Fiennes talks trying to convey the myriad of social cross-currents inherent in the story.

On both starring in and directing THE INVISIBLE WOMAN …

RALPH FIENNES: I think I was reluctant, not because it was a bad part – it was a fantastic part, but having done CORIOLANUS and done both [directing and starring], it was really hard. Your head space is in a vise – how you negotiate, do justice to your own performance, while making sure everyone else is taken care of. You’re really under pressure – budgetary pressure, time pressure. When this was offered to me, it was offered to me with, “If you want to play Dickens, we” – in this case, the BBC – “would be happy.” And I said, “No, I don’t think I could.” I did approach another actor, it didn’t go anywhere, I can’t say who it is, but I sensed that they didn’t like the fact that Dickens might be unlikable, which is actually what I like about it.

Anyway, I worked on the screenplay in depth with Abi Morgan, and we would look at scenes and I would do everyone’s lines. Doing it, I read Dickens’ [lines], of course, and it just got under my skin. Finally, I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” But I work with a great lady called Joan Washington, who’s known as a dialect coach, but actually, she has a fantastic sensitivity to performance, truth in performance, and she helped me on CORIOLANUS. So I know I had her here on this film. Also a great script supervisor [Susanna Lenton]. I think the thing I learned on CORIOLANUS is, I erred on shortchanging myself. When I sat in the rushes on CORIOLANUS, I wished I’d done another take, I wish I’d fought, even if it cost us more – I was rushing, scrambling to do CORIOLANUS under pressure, so this time around, I fought harder to have more time, which was ten weeks as opposed to eight weeks, just so I knew I’d got to have time, and that helped. Now, if I do go back [to directing] again, which I’d like to, to not act, just direct.

I tend to be quite sort of fussy and perfectionist about, “It’s never right, you can always do better.” And this is difficult when you’re under pressure. I really very much depended on Joan Washington and my script supervisor Susanna. I’d want it to be right. I’d say, “I think we’re there, aren’t we?” Partly because I had to move on. And I’d say, “Isn’t that …?” And she’d go, “Nnn, yeah, I don’t know really …” “Shall I go again?” “Yes, yes.” [breathes sigh of relief] “Okay.”

On creating the visual tone of the film with cinematographer Rob Hardy …

My starting point was, this is a story of intimacy, it’s like the gradations of a relationship. There are a lot of scenes of people in a room where it’s relatively static. And it seemed to me that what goes on in the face of Felicity especially, but also Dickens and other people, the subtext is really important. I’ve seen some period films where you feel the author of the film is anxious and they need to keep it jazzy, because they’re worried that it’s going to be staid or stiff or something. I thought, well, it is what it is. This is a time of a certain formality, people wear certain clothes. I didn’t want to shy away from that and it seemed to me that the camera is relatively still. I mean, it can move in and out, but essentially, there’s an observational quality about that camera that allows itself to watch. And that made me think about how you frame, so that the frame itself is rich, it has a dynamic, it has a temper and a composition and a consideration to it. And I was trying to articulate – these are sort of half-thought things when I talked to Rob about, I wanted to embrace the close-up that can watch, and the composition of light. We looked to paintings a lot, and they’re highly composed, those shots. A scene a really love is the scene with Nelly and Catherine [Dickens’ wife, played by Joanna Scanlan]. We had a 2:35 format, a wide-frame format, and so how you decide what’s going on to the side of them and around them, that is a big consideration. So Rob and I would spend quite a lot of time choosing the right lens and agreeing on position. One of the reasons I love him – his compositional eye is really strong. He takes something that’s just slightly off the conventional positioning – an example, which I love, being the scene where they [Dickens and Wilkie Collins, played by Tom Hollander] count the money together. I said to him, “They’re opposite each other across a table. I just think the camera is reasonably square onto them.” He said, “Fine.” We shot that scene, and I thought it looked great, and he said, “Please, can I just shoot close-ups again, placing the camera a little bit higher?” And I said, “Yeah, of course.” And in rushes, when I looked at it, I had a mass of material to choose from, but those are the close-ups which we used towards the second half of that scene, and they’re fantastic, because he’s just up here [indicates height above head level], and it creates a kind of tension in the way you’re slightly looking down. You’re not crazily high, but there’s a shot of me where my eyes are just under this bit, and it kind of stands out in a weird way which it wouldn’t if it were conventional. So it’s about Rob’s eye finding these slightly off-center positions to observe. They’re relatively formal, but slightly unusual.

On what he finds most striking about the historical Charles Dickens …

What impresses me is his furious work ethic, his energy. He was a man of crazy energy, exhausting. He’d walk these crazy distances. He then would write, and not only would he write the installments for his books, but he would then write – we show it in the film – this journal all year round of HOUSEHOLD WORDS [the weekly magazine Dickens edited]. I think there was a vitality to him, which is attractive, and slightly terrifying, because it was so strong. So that appeals to me. I discovered him quite late. I didn’t know much Charles Dickens. I had somehow sort of blanked him as being an area that I wasn’t going to be interested in. I’d read LITTLE DORRIT – I was familiar with adaptations. But only when I read this screenplay and then Claire’s book that I went, “Oh, this guy, quite complicated. He’s not bouncy, smiley, jolly.” And in a detailed reading of his works, you see a sort of shadowy, violent, conflicted and a darkly comic element to him. He’s slightly mad. He’s like a sort of slightly crazy child. He liked to be center of attention, he was very fastidious, organized – and like a crazy child, when you say to the child, “You have to stop playing that,” or “You were wrong,” he gets really mad. And so that’s the rather harder side of Dickens, is this sort of defensiveness that he’s never in the wrong. He never seems to want to be in the wrong.

On doing research on Dickens …

Well, the first thing is, there’s a lot of material that describes him – detailed descriptions, anecdotes, memories. His children have written about him. So I guess it’s a bit like you’re building up a kind of profile from written memories of Dickens and what he was like. The thing that emerged for me mostly was his vitality. He was sort of always “on,” so that’s what I’ve tried to show in the scene where they’re rehearsing and the party afterwards in Manchester when he brings the Ternans back to his house, and he’s saying, “Let’s have champagne,” and he talks and he’s kind of “up.” That was something that I felt everyone who reads about Dickens talks about his vitality, so that was the thing that I wanted to make – try, attempt to make sure that people felt in the film.

On whether or not Dickens was aware that he was coercing Nelly Ternan into a relationship …

I think he would not have liked to be honest with himself, which is why he helps the Ternan family. He obviously gives them the house. I think he was in love with her and it took a long time for him to [come to terms with it]. He acts with generosity to the Ternans as a way to get to Nelly. I don’t think he’s clear to himself about it, necessarily. And then when he finally does leave the family, he’s very self-defensive about it. I think he’s sort of constantly in denial, so he was obsessively secret. And finally, I think some part of him has to accept it and he’s very, very secretive about it. [Dickens’ friend] Wilkie Collins is the sort of man who’s honest about his desires and his attractions. I think he’s a fascinating character and one day there will also be a film about Wilkie Collins, who despised marriage, didn’t like the institution of marriage, his love life wasn’t simple. It’s interesting that they were friends, because Wilkie Collins had a very different attitude to sex. Wilkie Collins would visit brothels and sort out his appetite in that way, and yet they were friends. And I think how Dickens dealt with his desire for Nelly to himself is a really good question.

On Dickens’ interactions with Nelly’s mother, the actress Frances Ternan, played by Fiennes’ ENGLISH PATIENT costar Kristin Scott Thomas …

[Frances Ternan] is quite well-documented in Claire’s book and it does seem that she acquiesced in this relationship [between her daughter and Dickens]. Claire’s book is really worth reading if you’re at all interested in actresses and the way women, actresses, were perceived and how they survived in the nineteenth century. The first two or three chapters of the book go to great lengths to talk about women, the theatre, actresses, how you had to fight for respectability in the theatre, survival, and how, within the theatre, people often made arrangements and had love affairs outside of marriage. She talks about how, famously, one of the heirs to the throne had a famous actress as a mistress and she actually supported this man. When he became king, he ditched her. All this is part of a wider look at survival of women and matches made. I read it many, many times. There’s one page where Claire really hones in on what was Mrs. Ternan’s role in this. She cites other [instances] where a mother has enabled a happy romantic union, outside marriage, because it was stability. It was financial survival. And so one of the biggest things I learned was, the Victorians were making all these sort of deals, in and around the very strict taboos of the time. My interpretation of Claire’s book about this character, is that she acquiesced in this. That’s why there’s a scene there – I’m sort of proud of it, I suppose, Abi wrote it and I like it – after Dickens has gone to tea at their house, and there’s been the subtlest of stuff between Dickens and Nelly, which we really tried not to hit too hard, but like any mother, mothers pick up on that stuff. [Frances Ternan] goes in to give Dickens his coat. He makes a comment about the house and she says, “Well, we don’t have much money, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.” He offers his help. Obviously, audiences have to work here, because it’s not spelled out, but my thinking is, this is a mother who’s seen what’s going on, what he’s offering her, but she just goes right for it [snaps fingers] and she says, “I cannot risk Nelly’s reputation,” i.e., I know that your help is about getting to my daughter. She says, “The reputation I won’t risk.” You can’t risk the reputation. But later on, she has seen that Dickens’ attention has a reality to it, which if Nelly hasn’t got much of a future [as an actress], there is an accommodation that can be made. And it’s a hard one to get our heads around, but it’s only based on what’s in the book. It was a challenge to write it and do it, and we may not have entirely succeeded, but I do think that there was a point when the real Mrs. Ternan let this thing happen. And I’m sure she was absolutely insistent that it had to be honorable, that it had to be secret, that it meant that her daughter was being looked after quite well by one of the most famous men of the age.

On whether pre-production, production or post-production is most stressful …

The most stressful part has got to be the shooting, just because weather’s changing, and I probably shoot quite a lot of takes. It’s a very performance-driven film and I want to find that magic moment – great actors are in this film and they come prepared, and I know for myself, you come ready, but you want to find that place where the bit of you is not prepared bursts out and there’s little moments of this weird little truthful thing where suddenly, the actress or actor finds another level. And that takes time, and if you’re using up time, suddenly, at the end of the day, you’re going, “Oh, f***, I’ve got only a half an hour to shoot these three big close-ups.” And that becomes stressful. It also becomes kind of addictive, because it’s a kind of crazy thing – I get kind of like, “I’m not going to be beaten by this” [laughs].

On directing scenes with child actors …

Oh, I loved directing those scenes. They were these boys from this school inLondon. They went through an audition process – I wanted the best of the crop, but they still came with their innocence. I had to give them quite sort of coercive acting lessons, because sometimes they needed a bit of guidance [laughs], but they were very, very sweet and very good. I mean, I remember things like, when they had to talk about “a storm is coming,” I had to say like basic stuff. “Imagine what it’s like – you see a storm coming in and when you ask a question, really ask it.” Just getting them to really be inside the lines that they – I mean, acting’s about imagination, so just getting them to just really reinforce their imaginations.

On the scene where the Ternan sisters spontaneously burst into song …

Abi had written, before I came on board, a different scene of the girls together. It was more that they were teasing Nelly about seeing Dickens, and I discussed with Abi that it was too sort of girly, you know, they were going, ‘Uh-oh, we’ve seen Dickens looking at you,’ and I didn’t like the tone of it. I just wanted the audience of this film to just see, here is a family of women coming back, they’re unpacking. They live in a tiny, tiny house, which still exists. What was it like when they came back? I remembered my own sisters – how families, they have a family song that they all sing and it emerges, like on a long car drive, something like that. So it was just trying to go, what’s the really normal thing, the thing that risks almost being banal, but the audience gets a sense of how connected they are in the most unforced way, so that was the thinking behind it. I just liked the idea that they would fall into singing in a very unforced, easy way doing a chore or a task, unpacking stuff, and it’s this great song, “The Last Rose of Summer.” I think we managed to put it together sound-wise from our thing on the day. We made sure we had all the soundtracks to put it together later. The soundtrack is from when we were shooting.

On something he’d like to say that no one asks about the film …

Well, the one thing that no one asks me, or very rarely, is about the sound. One of the things I love is the sound of the picture. Not the music, which is one thing, but how you create atmosphere with footsteps and wind, rain, everything. Every possible thing can be heightened to create a whole other kind of music, and that’s something that I really have loved doing, and I love when I go to cinema and hearing the atmosphere of the soundtrack.

Related: Interview with THE INVISIBLE WOMAN star Felicity Jones

Related: Movie Review: THE INVISIBLE WOMAN


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: Interview with THE INVISIBLE WOMAN actor and director Ralph Fiennes


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