Ralph Fiennes on his role The Invisible Woman

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A director friend of Ralph Fiennes once said that audiences love the actor because “they want to know his secrets”. It’s true, I think. Watching Fiennes act – all searing intensity, that high forehead, the strong nose and, of course, those blue eyes, at once piercing and limpid – there is a sense that, no matter which character he is playing, something remains hidden, kept just out of reach. Interesting, then, that there couldn’t be a better qualification for his latest film.

The Invisible Woman, which Fiennes directs and in which he stars, is the story of Nelly Ternan, the mistress of Charles Dickens. Written by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) and based on Claire Tomalin’s biography, it is a moving, engaging drama about the impact of illicit love, its pleasures and pressures. Fiennes’ second outing as director and star after his compelling contemporary version of Coriolanus (2011), the film is beautifully shot, an assured rumination on secrets and their cost.

Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones star in The Invisible Woman 'TIW-04459.NEF

Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones star in The Invisible Woman 'TIW-04459.NEF

Literary powerhouse, actor, poverty campaigner, family man, Dickens was in his own lifetime a literary superstar. A complex and contradictory man, he was astonishingly prolific, often writing more than one novel at a time, the creator of iconic characters, but more than this, he had a profound effect on the social mores of Victorian Britain. Dickens was a man who had created an image of himself as a devoted family man, in his novels the moral ideal is domestic bliss, it was no surprise, then, that he went to extraordinary lengths to hide his relationship with Ternan.

She was 18 when she met the writer. He, a man of 45, was at the peak of his powers, a furious force of creative energy, the father of 10 children, a celebrated novelist and public speaker. Dickens became infatuated with Ternan (Felicity Jones), his desire for her rising as his interest in Catherine (a movingly stoic Joanna Scanlan), his wife of nearly 20 years, waned. The Invisible Woman is not a straight-forward love story, though. How could it be? Fiennes doesn’t shy away from showing Dickens’ callousness in his treatment of both of the women in his life, as well as the limited choices they have in terms of how they might want to live. And yet, the film is far from simplistically judgmental, rather it is a subtle portrait of the cost of deception for all involved.

“I didn’t know much about Dickens,” Fiennes says. “I really was not informed. I knew he liked to read his work and that he was a bit of an actor. But I didn’t know much about his married life, and apart from Little Dorrit, which I had read, I only knew his stories through adaptations.”

The first thing that struck him was Dickens’ relentless energy. He wrote furiously. He directed and acted in dramas. He undertook long speaking tours during which he would perform scenes from his novels to sell-out crowds. He was a celebrity before that concept was created. Fiennes captures this in his performance mainly through movement – his Dickens is hardly ever still. It’s intensity, but of a lighter shade than we have often seen from Fiennes.

“The first thing that Simon Callow, who has committed himself to being Dickens in his brilliant one- man show, emphasises is Dickens’ incredible energy for work, for life, for social occasions, for walking the streets of London, for taking his family on holiday. He never stopped. You look at pictures of him taken not long before he died, he was 58 but he looks like a man of 70. He was very ill, you feel his body had just given up on him because he’d driven it, pushed it too much.”

Fiennes is 50. Lean and tall, he doesn’t have the expensive sheen of a Hollywood actor. In a burgundy cord jacket, jeans and a blue shirt, he looks more like a theatre director, or an academic. There is a liveliness to him – he leans forward in his seat, his hands roam on the table in front of him or rise in the air to emphasis his point – but it’s beneath a surface of restraint, a quiet, deliberate, almost shy demeanor.

Fiennes grew up with four brothers and two sisters. The family lived an itinerant lifestyle – they moved often with their farmer-turned photographer father and their mother, the dominant figure in the family, a creative woman who became a novelist, she encouraged her children to give themselves entirely to everything that they did. Fiennes’ brother Joseph is also an actor, his sister, Martha, is a director. Fiennes originally studied painting but found his way to RADA and then to the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was his role as TE Lawrence that brought him to the attention of Hollywood. Steven Spielberg cast him as the Nazi commandant Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, which in turn earned Fiennes a nomination for an Academy Award. After that, he starred as Charles Van Doren in Quiz Show but it was his performance as the tortured Count Almásy in The English Patient, which brought him another Oscar nomination, that cemented his reputation as an actor of stunning concentration.

It’s not too much of a stretch to understand the interest that Dickens, also a man of huge artistic energy, holds for Fiennes. The way he speaks about him suggests that the fascination continues. If he didn’t know much about him at the start of the process, that certainly can’t be said now. He talks about the writer and his family with intimate knowledge, it’s as though he remains enmeshed in this idiosyncratic and enthralling man’s life. He explains that he’d been to Dickens’ London home earlier that day and although he’d visited a few times before, the impact on him felt different this time.

“Suddenly I had this huge sense of sadness,” he says. “It was the first house he bought when he was just married to Catherine. There was probably such optimism between them about their life together. I felt real sadness. I went into a room in which there were pictures of young Catherine and young Dickens. There was a moment, as with most marriages, when the people entering have that sense of the possibilities that are there. And then it ended in such a sad, cruel way.”

There is little doubt that Dickens was cruel to his wife, Catherine, a woman who, after 22 years of marriage, he simply discarded. Ternan, who was with Dickens for 13 years, until his death, represented everything that Catherine was not – she was young, she was self-possessed, serious, and, entranced by his novels. Fiennes’ estimation of “poor Catherine” is that she most likely couldn’t have kept up with Dickens no matter what, but being pregnant almost every year of the first decade of their marriage meant that she had no chance.

“I think he was a difficult husband,” Fiennes’ says, his brow furrowing. “I think it all had to be his way, a certain way. I’m not sure I like it but I think I can understand that if you’re carrying that level of imaginative fury and energy, that creative drive, that if the room isn’t right....” He straightens up, the frown deepening, acting out Dickensian displeasure, “why hasn’t this been done? why hasn’t that been done? I’ve done this much.” His face softens and he smiles. “I’m afraid I can relate to that kind of neurotic, controlling behaviour. Yeah....” The sentence trails away. There’s a long pause before he continues. “I felt there were bits of me in Dickens. I could sort of feel little links.” He stops and raises his eyebrows expectantly.

I imagine that was comfortable and uncomfortable, I prompt.

“Both,” he says, and smiles. Subject closed.

Fiennes is famously reticent 
about discussing his private life. In part, it strikes me that this is just how he is – a rather introverted man despite his extrovert career. But it’s also an attitude shaped by bitter experience. Fiennes knows what it is to be the carcass at the centre of a media feeding frenzy. The end of his marriage to Alex Kingston, his subsequent relationship with Francesca Annis, he’s filled plenty of column inches. It’s a subject which offers another parallel with Dickens, who in his day was fêted as movie stars are now. He was a sensation and there was a great deal of public interest not only in his work but 
in the man himself. It’s for this reason that it was so important to him to keep his affair with Ternan hidden from the public gaze. Even after he had separated from his wife and lived with Ternan, always using false names, their relationship was never made public. When Dickens and Ternan were involved in a serious rail crash, he was a great pains to ensure that no one discovered they were travelling together.

There were other aspects of Dickens’ life though that were entirely lived out in public, not least his love of acting. Dickens had wanted to be an actor but becoming ill on the day of an audition scuppered what might have been his big break. Instead, he wrote about his love of theatre in his novels and he mounted meticulous and extravagant amateur productions.

“I think he was a good actor,” says Fiennes. “I came across a review of his performance in the melodrama that we showed the rehearsals of in the film. It wasn’t a review it was a comment. It was something like, ‘Mr Dickens resists coming to the footlights and grandstanding his emotions’. You feel the critic is saying this is real and Dickens is not doing a sort of histrionic or actor-ish posturing.”

Fiennes sounds approving, genuinely impressed. It’s the kind of acting he admires. “It’s always weird when actors talk about acting because it’s often something best left alone,” he says, “but I think sometimes when the actor is very in command it can be impressive but it can often, not always, but often, lack that thing that makes it feel like it’s just there, that no one is acting.”

From big budget franchises (Fiennes was, of course, Voldemort in the Harry Potter films) to celebrated interpretations of Shakespeare on stage in London and on Broadway, to impressive independent films such as The Constant Gardener, to his new role as Dame Judi Dench’s replacement as M in the next James Bond film, Fiennes’ is a career of startling variety. He’s a consummate actor, chameleon-like in his ability to blend into wildly varied projects. And, now, of course, he adds the skill of director to his repertoire, but for Fiennes it seems intimately related to his craft as an actor.

“I feel I’m just getting my head around what it is to make a film,” he says. “In going through the process of choosing the shots that make up someone’s performance, I’ve learned a lot. You have to evaluate why you want to choose particular takes. It’s not anything so crude as good or bad, it’s more that there’s just something, a little thing in the face that works, and funnily enough it makes me, I think, slightly freer as an actor. I know that everything has a possibility. Often I’ve thought this is the part where I must get it right but there isn’t really such a thing. There’s a journey towards the truth of something, but after that you just have to stop censoring.

“I see it in actors I admire, they let themselves into the part and they sometimes risk an odd, dud thing happening but it floats in the general context of a kind of freedom. They’re letting themselves go. It doesn’t have to be high energy, they can do it in a very quiet way, but they let themselves drop into something.”

Jennifer Lawrence is the name he picks as an example of this kind of performance. She has been, he says, “consistently brilliant.” And Felicity Jones has it too – emotional transparency is what he calls it, the ability for what they are feeling to be read on their faces.

“Someone like Vanessa [Redgrave], who plays Volumnia, [Coriolanus’s fierce mother], it was thrilling to work with her because she is constantly experimenting. She gives herself permission. Sometimes it goes in a direction that’s a bit unlikely but what you’re grateful for is that she’s going there at all. And then it brings her back to something that has a huge profoundness to it. That’s what I’m talking about – it’s an interior creative freedom. The director is there to guide and suggest things, but watching take after take after take, it’s great when the performer does something different or you feel them pushing the boundaries.”

He admits that there is a tension in both directing and acting that’s not easy to resolve – being in one moment completely absorbed, playing a part, and in the next required to detach and assess what is happening. It’s also abundantly clear that it’s a process that he loves. The next time, though, he’d like to do just one thing at a time.

“If I’m lucky enough to direct again, which I’d like very much, I would love just to direct and not be in it. The days that I wasn’t acting in this were almost like a holiday.” He laughs.

The Invisible Woman (12A) is on general release.

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