In “The Invisible Woman,” Ralph Fiennes plays Charles Dickens, the 19th century author of “A Tale of Two Cities,” “A Christmas Carol,” “Oliver Twist” and other social commentary works that have become literary classics.
But the drama is not about his works, but about the man, who was brilliant and beloved by his reader the world over but who also could be cruel and callous to those closest to him.
“The Invisible Woman” is the story of the married man’s affair with a young actress named Nelly Ternan (played by British actress Felicity Jones). Though she tries to resist his charms, Nelly becomes his lover and muse. A tragic train accident threatens to expose them publicly, and a decision must be made.
Best known for his role as SS Officer Amon Goeth in “Schindler’s List,” and as the evil Lord Voldemort in the “Harry Potter” movies, Fiennes tackles both acting and directing duties in “The Invisible Woman,” which is based on Claire Tomalin’s bestselling book.
The drama marks Fiennes second outing as a filmmaker. He previously directed Shakespeare’s tragedy “Coriolanus” in 2010. He recently spoke about playing the literary icon and his second time in the director’s chair.
Q: Were there any surprises during the shoot? Did you learn anything new?
Fiennes: I was learning all the time. It's only the second film I’ve directed. You're building relationships with people and that's a learning curve, how a head of a department evolves and what that relationship is. It was all very positive. The biggest learning curve for me has been in editing because that's when I think you're suddenly aware. The same editor did this and Coriolanus, and that's where I felt suddenly with a good editor—Nicolas Gaster’s his name—and you suddenly go: "Well I've tried this," and he will blindside you with a version, which I felt, I must be open about this. But often he would do stuff which I liked. Other directors can be very controlling or they leave it to the editor to do everything. But I liked Nic trying stuff out. It was a surprise for me. Sometimes I would resist it. Other times I would go: "Okay. Good." The thing that you're continually learning is the language you talk to actors on the set. You have an instinct that the performance can go somewhere, and what's your vocabulary. Every actor is different and how do you nurture, maneuver, possibly manipulate. How do you get them and what's the way? You never know what an actor is going to say. They might say, "I don't like this line," or "This isn't working." So the everyday lesson was I have a sense of what the scene is going to be, but this person is saying and doing this, how do I get them there? Am I right to get them there? He's pulling in this direction so is that a good instinct that I should listen to? Everyday you're dancing this thing and you don’t know. In the end it's often just instinct. I'm looking for some kind of emotional truth, something that I really believe that this happening to that person in that moment.
Q: One of the heartbreaking scenes is when Charles sends his wife Catherine to his mistress Nelly to present a bracelet he has bought for her. Did this really happen? What is your perspective in that event?
Fiennes: There was a kind of slightly sort of sociopathic streak in Dickens. There's a great essay by an English academic called” Dickens the Violent Effigy” and it looks at the motives of violence in Dickens' imagination. Brutality. Violence. People being pummeled, beaten, fires. There was a side of him that had real anger. If this really happened, and in Claire’s book it’s meant to have happened, he converted possible humiliation into attack. And I think it was a psychological defect. Of course, he might be exposed with a gift meant to go to his girlfriend going to his wife, but Dickens would have said, “There’s nothing wrong with that. Take it to her. I’ve got nothing to apologize for, take it to her.” And that's the same thing with his reaction when he wanted to leave the marriage, he wrote a letter to the Times (of London) and he justified it. He could have been the family man humiliated by the extramarital affair. But no, he converted it into: "I'm the aggrieved party. I'm the one who is suffering. She was never a great mother. She never loved her children. I’m the one who’s doing it all. How could you possibly judge me?" It’s shocking and cruel and callous. It's slightly mad. There’s sort of a madness there. There’s a scene in “Our Mutual Friend,” which was the last completed novel of a schoolmaster called Bradley Headstone, who’s in love with one of two central girls. He’s not an attractive character, but he’s compelling as a character and he confronts the girl he loves, who does not love him back in a graveyard and sort of insists she will love him. She says, “No. No. I cannot.” And Dickens’ description of about his anger of how she won’t accept him, he pounds her to death so his knuckles bleed. I’ve read an essay where it conjectures “Wasn’t Dickens writing about himself and his obsession with Nelly?” It’s just irrational anger. So these were clues that I found that helped me make sense of his relationship with her.
Q: Would you say there was any indication that Dickens felt remorse about the way he treated her?
Fiennes: I do feel that.
Q: The train accident scene is difficult to watch in how he doesn’t want to be found with her. Do you think this is another example of his cruel nature?
Fiennes: In that scene, she tells him to go. She also doesn’t want to be identified. What she says is, “Go,” and the rescue worker asks her if she was traveling alone, and she says, “Yes,” because it would damage her to be identified as his mistress. Of course, deep down she wants him to stay so when he leaves, you see on our face the sadness that he’s left. We took a little bit of artistic license. But he actually got her into a carriage with her mother and was taken away. In our version, he hands her over to some ladies almost off screen. But he did go and help people. An earlier version of the script that was the last scene, but I felt strong that I didn’t want audiences to feel that Dickens had abandoned her.