Ralph Fiennes: Dickens "was fueled by a kind of fury"

The former Lord Voldemort on directing himself opposite the marvelous Felicity Jones in "The Invisible Woman"

Published January 3, 2014 12:00AM (EST)

Ralph Fiennes     (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)
Ralph Fiennes (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

Ralph Fiennes has played Prince Hamlet and Lord Voldemort. He has been a Hollywood leading man (albeit briefly) and a collaborator with filmmakers ranging from Steven Spielberg to David Cronenberg. He may be the most acclaimed Shakespearean stage actor of his generation, and has been twice nominated for an Oscar (first for “Schindler’s List” and then for “The English Patient”). What almost no one has noticed is that he’s turned into an exceptional director as well.

Twice in the last three years, Fiennes has directed one of the year’s most intriguing, muscular and uncompromising films only to see it swamped by showier, higher-profile holiday releases. His 2011 “Coriolanus” is one of the most striking Shakespeare adaptations of recent years, a fearsome and imaginative reinvention of perhaps the Bard’s most impenetrable tragedy. With “The Invisible Woman,” Fiennes tackles another titan of English lit, Charles Dickens, playing the author of “Great Expectations” as an intensely conflicted and in some ways hard-hearted man, who dumps his wife for a much younger woman.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that “The Invisible Woman” is some sort of polite, actorly costume drama, driven by gowns, sets and showboating. And don’t assume it’s a vanity project for Fiennes, who does not play the most important part and isn’t the film's real star. As we discussed when I met him in New York a few weeks ago, Dickens is a supporting character in the remarkable story of his mistress Nelly Ternan, played by Felicity Jones in what should be a breakthrough performance (if anyone sees it). Fiennes and screenwriter Abi Morgan adapted Claire Tomalin’s book about Nelly into a thoroughly unsentimental fable about a young woman navigating the profound sexism of Victorian society, and ultimately defeating it.

In this movie, and quite likely in real life, Nelly’s relationship with Dickens was essentially brokered by her mother (the reliably terrific Kristin Scott Thomas), an actress and theatrical impresario who understood that a famous writer offered her daughter a promise of security she would otherwise never find. Fiennes’ Dickens treats his wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), with indefensible cruelty while pursuing Nelly, who isn’t at all sure she wants the hypocritical and secretive life of being a celebrity’s kept woman. Much later, after Dickens’ death, Nelly successfully reinvented herself as a respectable middle-class wife, even passing herself off as 12 years younger than her real age. Meticulously crafted and full of brilliant, hard-edged performances, “The Invisible Woman” is a quietly subversive – and yes, feminist – portrait of Victorian society as the ancestor of our own time.

I was surprised when Fiennes brought up István Szabó’s great 1985 drama “Colonel Redl” (set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire before World War I) as a model for this film, but perhaps I should not have been. It’s obvious that Fiennes has been watching movies and thinking about them all his life. Sooner or later, he’ll make one that cannot be ignored.

I understand you had some reluctance about playing Dickens at first.

Well, only because I found it such a handful to direct and act at the same time, doing "Coriolanus." The script was sent to me with the offer to direct and they said, “If you would like to play Dickens we would like that,” this is BBC and Headline pictures. And I didn’t know much about Dickens at all. I had almost deliberately moved away from reading Dickens. I had read a little and liked it but hadn’t chosen to read more. So reading this early draft of the script and then Claire Tomalin’s book — that completely got inside me and I was fascinated by everything about it.

I mean, he is extraordinary as a character, as a person. But it was also her and her story and her background. What moved me was the story of how she went on and she’s this woman holding this past who hasn’t had any kind of closure. That’s when it moved beyond just a biopic-y thing. Because it was about interior life, about a person needing some kind of resolution, some closure, some understanding within herself. That moved me a lot. Initially I could see the attraction for Dickens as a role. In Abi Morgan’s first draft, even then she had great scenes and things. But I kept being haunted by the memory of being under pressure and what it was like trying to hold a film in your head and suddenly go and start acting.

Then, in a weird way, I started rehearsing it without the intention of playing it, because I worked a lot with Abi who was a very generous collaborator. She and I wanted to rearrange and reemphasize things and we did a lot of rewriting, together. I would test bits of dialogue and read all the parts but with her to see how they felt, and I enjoyed reading Dickens. I guess in that process I felt like I’d like to do this. And everyone, Claire Tomalin included, said, “I just think that you should play Dickens.” She was very disappointed that I wasn’t going to. So eventually I said to everyone involved, the producers, “OK, look, I did approach one other actor, I did approach someone else.” But that didn’t go anywhere so in the end I did it.

I’ve had a couple of people say to me that Dickens seems like a stretch for you. One friend put it that Dickens overlaps, at least in the popular imagination, with Santa Claus. And although I might enjoy the film in which you play Santa, I suppose you’re not the obvious choice.

Well, no. [Laughter.] I think there’s this idea of Dickens as a jovial, bouncing figure, laughing and joking, endless gregariousness. And there was a bit of him that was like that, gregarious and social and sparkly. My sense, though, was that he was a very complicated man. He could enter a room and be the organizer of games and magic tricks and funny stories and a brilliant mimic and holding forth and entertaining and holding the center. But he was also incredibly controlling; he was domineering. I don’t mean he was demonstratively domineering in his persona but I think he — in Claire’s book she describes how he organized the running of the house, normally that would have been, in Victorian times, the woman’s domain. I mean, in a middle-class home the husband would have given her the means to run it. He was on top of furniture placement, he was the interior decorator, he was famously a very domineering father.

I feel that he was fueled by a kind of fury, a furious determination because of this time as a child he spent at a blacking factory — which is made out to be terrible, the worst bits of “Oliver Twist.” In fact, I think it was a small workshop and the owner was reasonably benign and Dickens was taken care of. But within him there was this fury that he wasn’t going to a proper school and had to earn his father’s keep. And I think that was the catalyst, that was the thing that fueled him, this furious determination to prove himself. So he was intolerant of a lot of things.

He was so dedicated to his self-image as something like an avatar of middle-class morality — not a depraved aristocrat — and that became a problem for him in his personal life. To contemporary eyes, at least, the way he treats his wife in this story is abominable.

It was to people at the time also. I think what happened was that a lot of his friends, including a very close friend called Mark Lemon, who was briefly portrayed [in the film] as this jovial larger figure who is in a troupe of actors. He was editor of Punch and he cut Dickens completely; they didn’t speak. He took Catherine’s side, as did many other people. Dickens had a collegial relationship with Thackeray, and that was very badly bruised. Eventually they made up, but I think people were shocked. He was so famous, as you say, he was this avatar of the middle class and he was so justifying. He wrote this letter to the Times saying it’s all amicable and it’s all nothing to worry about and no one need concern themselves. And this troubles everyone who writes about Dickens — it’s in Claire’s book and Michael Slater’s book and Simon Callow’s book. When they talk about this moment — they all love Dickens, they’re all in love with this subject —but they go, “Ouch, how do we get around this?” And there is no getting around it.

When you play a part your job is to be within the character, within the person, and what I felt was profound frustration in Dickens. It doesn’t justify what he did, but I think all his energy, his emotional DNA, everything about him was so different from Catherine. She had a total of 12 pregnancies, of which two had been miscarriages, but she had been pregnant throughout all their married life and had post-natal depression. I think he built up this very unfair history of her. But within his head he just wanted to break out. So we come to Nelly Ternan, and one theory is that he had been writing Nelly in his books, ideal, innocent, pure woman who was forever loving and tolerant. Agnes in “David Copperfield,” basically. Dora is the comic version that's not right, and then Agnes is the saintly person who is waiting, waiting, forever waiting. My theory is that he projected all this onto Nelly when he saw her, and then actually found that she was quite tough, quite hard. How to get her -- it was hard for him.

As Felicity Jones plays her — which is one of the year’s great performances, by the way — she isn’t anything like Agnes at all.

No, not at all. I guess another writer or director would have looked at Claire's book and decided to approach it very differently, but I felt that this was -- it's on two time frames, so it's the story of the older Ellen Ternan coming to terms with the history of this relationship she's carrying inside her, which is unresolved for her somehow. That's one. And then the other frame is how Nelly Ternan came to be the mistress of Charles Dickens. Not her life in total. You could have chosen to do her life with Charles Dickens, and of course the story of how she remade herself after his death. For me, I felt the most interesting, dramatic bit was, what were the situations that led her to go, "OK, I'm in." And the mother figure was interesting for me, Kristin Scott Thomas’ character, Mrs. Ternan. In her book, Claire writes about Mrs. Ternan coming from the theater, where she would have witnessed couples having under-the-radar liaisons. In the theater you could sort of get away with that. There's that element, and she also gives me the various examples of liaisons made for love and desire, but where the man supports the woman. Women needed a man's support, because very few women, if any, were supporting themselves, it was frowned upon.

That's where Wilkie Collins [played by Tom Hollander] is interesting, because he did have these arrangements outside marriage, and that was a great idea of Abi's, to have Dickens take Nelly to see him, to show her what this kind of life would be like. That's not a factual episode, but what is factual is Wilkie's arrangement with Caroline Graves [Michelle Fairley].

That whole interlude struck me as almost a precursor of the 1960s sexual revolution -- which was experienced in a similar way by many women. I mean, it was great for the guys … [Laughter.]

Yeah, exactly. Wilkie Collins was really out there. He'd be a really interesting character for another movie, maybe.

How much was Nelly looking for an intellectual partnership? It’s clear that one of the draws for Dickens was the fact that she had read his books and had strong opinions about them, that she was clearly highly intelligent.

I think Claire hints about that, and I know we felt that was something useful to build on dramatically. Dickens was substantially older, and although there may have been some romantic inclination but -- there's a scene that's meant to support that, when he's got the proofs of the last bit of “Great Expectations” and asks her to read it. And she says she likes it and begins to comment on it, and that's Abi and me saying, this is where they come together.

Well, and her commentary about the ending to “Great Expectations,” a great novel that has three or four inconclusive endings, strikes me as a key to understanding your film.

That pretty much comes from me. I felt very strongly that -- a lot of the time she's receiving, or making choices, under pressure. But her ability to articulate why she's making a choice doesn't happen while she's making it, you know? I wanted her, in the end, to give utterance somehow, to articulate. That scene in the graveyard with the Rev. William Benham [played by the terrific Irish actor John Kavanagh], we cut that down a bit. There was a bit more there where she talked about her life with Dickens. But I definitely wanted her to find a way to talk about being in the shadows, being haunted really.

And that ending is fascinating. His original ending to “Great Expectations” -- it's a dark and shadowy book, and Pip is highly flawed and Estella is saying no, and he writes an ending -- not the ending that's known -- where they see each other across Leicester Square or Piccadilly or something, and she's married to a doctor. And he says that suffering "had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be." People told him that was too hard, so he wrote another ending, but still with this ambivalent thing about "I saw the shadow of no parting from her." And then he changed it again to "I saw no shadow of another parting from her." So he's dealing with this shadowy sense of not being separated from her, and it's a very funny closure.

You know, he wrote that book -- "A Tale of Two Cities" was written in the first full flush of romantic adoration. The character of Sydney Carton is quite like the character Dickens played in the play "The Frozen Deep," a man who dies for the love of a woman he can't have. And then I think "Great Expectations" – and this is another homemade theory – is shaped by the fact that Nelly was so tough! The flawed Pip, who is quite ruthless about society -- Claire says Dickens was in a complete state of anguish in the early 1860s when all this was going on. He'd left Catherine. Estella is cold and heartless, and I couldn't help thinking, “Where does this come from?” It's quite odd. I'm not an expert on Dickens and I don't know all the works, but this one is quite full of odd things and shadowy bits. There's a character called Orlick, who's not in many of the films, who's a very weird and twisted person and nearly tries to kill Pip at the end. Being an amateur psychoanalyst, I ask, where do these dark, weird things -- Miss Havisham, the broker of the relationship -- come from? Claire asks the rhetorical question of whether Miss Havisham is a version of Nelly's mother, Mrs. Ternan. I don't think so, but one has to ask the question. All of that is a long-winded way of saying that yes, I felt that “Great Expectations” was somehow interesting, and it sat in the part of the story we were trying to tell.

Well, what that illustrates is a perennial conflict in creating a work of art or drama or literature, the conflict between doing what one supposes the audience wants and doing what the work seems to demand. In this film, you have chosen the more open-ended, ambiguous conclusion, not the audience-satisfying happy ending.

Yes. There is closure, but Dickens is not eradicated. The Rev. Benham was a real figure, and she did talk to him. Claire believes she might have opened up to him, so I leapt on that. But I think she's going to carry it forever. It's always going to be there.

What made you believe that Felicity Jones could pull this off, playing Nelly at both stages of her life? She's magnificent, but it's not much like anything she's done before, or at least anything that I've seen.

There was a tiny list of possible contenders, and she generously agreed to read for me. There are two time frames, as I've said, and I didn't want to go down the road of makeup and age differences. I wanted someone who could act that inside, at least principally, and for sure I wanted it to be the same actress. We don't go into this much, but Nelly maintained her youthful looks, and she passed herself off as being 12 years younger anyway. She was in her early 40s during the time of her later marriage, the second time frame, and as far as everybody else knew she was 30 or so.

When we read, she seemed to find this little shift where I believed that difference, and also by that point I had decided to play Dickens. I was in a room with the producer and the casting director, and we felt it just click. I'd seen her work and I liked it a lot, but in the end it's just a feeling. You just know; you say, "This is it." She has a thing where she's apparently still in the face, but we feel that a whole lot of stuff is happening inside. She's full of thought that's active. Nelly is so often receiving, listening, watching Dickens, and it was really important that that wasn't passive. Like, you're listening to me now, and it's completely active. People can mistake that for passiveness in a dramatic scene, and it's not. That's what she does brilliantly.

People may assume, based on a brief description, that this is primarily a film about Charles Dickens, and that you're the star. You're a more famous actor than Felicity is, and Dickens is of course more famous than Nelly. But Dickens is really a supporting character in this story.

Yeah, absolutely. It's her story. Dickens is the way into talking about it, but then it's her. And she moved me, in Abi's early draft. I was really moved by the story of this woman wrestling with her past. That was the reason I wanted to make it.

You spoke earlier about Kristin Scott Thomas' amazing performance as Nelly's mother. As always, she appears totally free of ego and vanity. But how much do we know about Mrs. Ternan, and the whole idea that she orchestrated the affair?

The mother must have known. She must have known, and the sisters knew. There was an unwritten agreement or contract of secrecy. People would do anything not to have a scandal. There was a code: As long as you didn't walk into a room with your mistress, socially. If you came with your wife, but everyone knew you were then going to visit a prostitute or see your mistress, as long as they weren't confronted with it, people seemed to accept it.

That code was so prevalent then, and for a long time thereafter, and then at some recent time we lost it. Nobody wrote about all of JFK's escapades at the time.

Yeah, that's exactly what I mean. And there's still a reluctance, I think -- even with all the gossip we hear about celebrities nowadays. It's still a door marked "private," and it's still a decision to open it. There are some people who have no qualms about it, of course. Some people who thrive on exposing their own private lives. That's where we see the big difference.

You did not rush into directing; I know from talking to you before that you’ve thought about it for years. Were there particular directors you worked with as an actor who made you think about this?

Different directors that I've worked with would come to mind on different days. Two completely different directors whose approach I would look at and say "yeah": Fernando Meirelles of "The Constant Gardener" has a very loose directing style. He doesn't like to be tied down to a fixed camera position, and doesn't really like dialogue that much. But he's so loose and has so much energy. I also remember the energy and flexibility of Steven Spielberg in "Schindler's List," which was just my second experience in front of a film camera. Most of the filming experience as an actor is just waiting, waiting, waiting. With Steven, once you're on the set, shooting your scene, it's bam-bam-bam! He has no patience for all the delays. That energy on the set, keeping it mobile, keeping it active. That was something I would remember.

I would also remember the Hungarian director István Szabó. We did a film called "Sunshine" [in 1999]. He had a very simple way of shooting, and when I first met him he talked about the close-up. [Hungarian accent:] "In the closeup we see thoughts and feelings being born on the face for the first time." This idea that there are these moments of transition that we witness, at the heart of a film story.

There's a scene I added to “Coriolanus” at the last minute, when Jessica Chastain comes into the bed and lies next to Coriolanus. I put it in there because I felt we had to address what happens in this bedroom, to this man who is weird and slightly psychopathic, and who has come back from the war. The camera moved just very slightly. I said to [cinematographer] Barry Ackroyd, “It's a one-shot scene, she comes from the shadows and goes onto the bed.” He made it work, he got her face behind my face, and the two faces joined. When we did that shot I was so thrilled, because most of the time I was relying on his expertise, with the camera in the battle scenes, and suddenly I felt that here was the story, happening in one scene: A woman gets onto the bed, lies next to her husband and we watch the energy between them.

I wanted to approach “The Invisible Woman” with the question of what's in the frame: You frame the face, you frame the figure, and it's full of activity. You can have a relatively still camera, but the cutting points are very strong. A lot of the scenes are between people in rooms, and how does that have its tension? To me it's about the interior life of the actor, and what the frame is. István seemed to have a principle like that. In his earlier films, like "Colonel Redl," which I love -- I've watched that a few times -- it's quite simply shot, but he gets these extraordinary interior performances, with really, really great acting, and then he cuts [slap] and it comes out of nowhere. It's magnificent. When I think about the influences that made me want to become a film director – and you’re right, it's been coming for a long time -- that's a pretty big one.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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