The Invisible Woman sees Ralph Fiennes return to the director’s chair for the first time since he made his directorial debut at the beginning of last year.
The Invisible Woman is a big screen adaptation of the novel of the same name by Claire Tomalin, and sees Fiennes also star as Charles Dickens.
The movie screened at the BFI London Film Festival and Fiennes, Tomalin, screenwriter Abi Morgan and actress Joanna Scanlon came together to talk about the film.
- Ralph, what ultimately make you want to tell this story?
Ralph Fiennes: What moved me and inspired me was reading, almost in conjunction, and early draft of a screenplay by Abi Morgan and Claire Tomalin’s wonderful biography of the same name. I didn’t know the story of Nelly Ternan and I didn’t know much about Dickens, and I was totally transported by the story of this woman: she was the mistress of Dickens and then had gone on to reclaim her life.
Abi’s screenplay really affected me, and then I was totally ambushed by Claire’s biography: it is a brilliant depiction of this woman’s life and women in the Victorian theatre. The proposition to direct was appealing, I initially didn’t want to do both
But after working with Abi on the screenplay the character of Dickens just wormed its way into my consciousness. I eventually turned around and said ‘yes please, I would like to play him.’
- One thing that really struck me about the film was Dickens as a contemporary celebrity – he lives with fame constantly and that effects his relationships. Was that a conscious thread that you brought to the story?
Abi Morgan: It all goes back to the source and the text and what is supreme about Claire’s books is the immediacy and the vitality that it has – there is something incredibly contemporary in its telling. Second to that, I was working with a contemporary celebrity. It is always an intriguing position to be in, when you are not a celebrity and you are working someone who it: that slightly informs that.
Ralph doesn’t have a concept of celebrity in the same way, and I was intrigued by that as we are overwhelmed by gossip and publicity and journalistic articles. How do you maintain your private life? And that is at the heart of Claire’s book: how did this very public man work his way through the complexities of a very complicated domestic life? For me, comes back to the true brilliance of the book.
- Claire, where there any moments when you weren’t sure about having your book adapted for the big screen? Or were you very enthusiastic about the idea?
Claire Tomalin: I was extremely enthusiastic. Abi’s enthusiasm was great – you are now a celebrity yourself. To have this brilliant young woman responding so warmly an intelligently to what I was written was marvellous. Of course, the thing about Ralph – and I said this early on – ‘you were born to play Dickens’.
He has got that ambivalence and he could do exactly what Dickens could do. He could go from being the jolliest and most witty and entertaining person in the world, to extremely black and difficult: h was never black and difficult with me.
- Joanna this is one of those smaller roles that just stands out – Mr Dickens is just heart-breaking. So how did the role come about?
Joanna Scanlon: I auditioned for it. I read it with Ralph, and it felt very naturally between us. But you walk out and you don’t know if you have the job. I felt a great sense of responsibility to Catherine Dickens, the woman. When you take on a role like that you have to consider how much of portrayal of an original and living human being you can possibly convey.
I had to trust Claire’s extraordinary sleuthing to unravel the story, to Abi’s dramatic interpretation to Ralph’s directorial vision. In the end, you just sit there and let that hold you, and hope that you are doing the real Catherine Dickens some service: I think she would like to know that so many years on her story is being told with some sympathy.
Ralph Fiennes: There is a great scene where Catherine visits Nelly to return the bracelet, apparently this happened, and on the first reading of the screenplay that really affected me. Joanna very generously agreed to come and read, and in seconds we were transported in the way that you read the scene. I was absolutely brilliant.
- As a private man yourself could you relate to this private story of a very public man? Secondly, how do you think today’s press would handle this story? Would it remain a secret?
It was the story of Nelly that actually drew me to this and moved me. I have been in the front of the press and that was definitely an element. He was a man famous for his work but things in his private life begin to shift and fall apart.
I have a theory that in the Victorian times they didn’t want scandal, generally it was uncomfortable for everyone. I have a feeling that if people could stop there being a scandal then they would. If you had all kinds of things going on in your private life that were socially unacceptable, as long as they were never socially present it was ok.
Today, that does not exist. I think there is a vicarious curiosity that we have now become addicted to: we want to know about people’s private life. Over the decades the press have led to this expectancy that we have the right to know, I don’t think that was the case back then. Dickens was obsessively secretive about this relationship, I don’t think he would stand a chance today.
- One of the lines in the film is ‘life is nothing without good company’. I was wondering, for all the socialising that Dickens did he was actually a lonely man. Is that what you all felt from the story?
Abi Morgan: Being a writer, at its heart there is an isolation. He was often he was alone, but I don’t know if he was lonely. There is an isolation to his position, I think there is an isolation when you have that level of celebrity: he was more famous than the royal family at that time.
Claire Tomalin: He didn’t like being alone – it is very noticeable in his life. He would go away to do some writing, but he would immediately write to his friends and say ‘come and join me’. There was a loneliness, but he didn’t like being alone.
Abi Morgan: Being a writer, you have to go out to life it doesn’t come to you. At 6pm I love going to meet people and I kick around the kitchen looking for company.
Joanna Scanlon: I wonder if he was lonely in the relationship with Nelly, because it was lived alongside a double life: he couldn’t truly have his heart’s desire, and she couldn’t either. That might have been lonely.
- Ralph, now that you have been in the director’s chair, has that changed the way that you approach a role?
Ralph Fiennes: Since I have made this film I have acted in two movies. Think that having got behind the camera on two films, you can’t go back to the same innocence. You have made decisions about the camera and about interpreting the scenes as a director, so when you are an actor you are very curious about where someone is putting their camera and how they are moving it around.
It is also a relief (laughs) just to be an actor again. I have always been curious about the decisions that directors are making – aside from how they are directing the actors – and now I am even more curious to see what it is that I am part of. In terms of approaching a role, I don’t think that has changed.
- Claire, did you set out to write a book about the secret relationship of Charles Dickens or the character of Nelly Ternan?
Claire Tomalin: I was writing about Nelly Ternan. I was writing about the situation of a young woman who gets involved, in this case, with a great ad famous man and how she copes with it. She is a particularly interesting case because of the fact that she was kept secret and then after his death she remade herself: she took ten years off her age.
As I was working on it, I thought that she was just one of many women who lived there lives like that in the 19th century. I saw her as an emblematic figure. To me the book has a great social story to tell. Really, Dickens is just a walk on part: in the film I am happy to say that he is not.
- Ralph, you have said there is a disconnect between Shakespeare and modern audiences, but do you think the same thing with Dickens?
Ralph Fiennes: I think it is getting harder for younger audiences to connect with Shakespeare because of the language: the English language is changing and so is the way that we use it. Shakespeare’s language is a challenge for younger people to get excited about. For some reason, when I was growing up I never pulled Dickens from the bookcase.
I had read and liked Little Dorrit but I hadn’t run off and had a dickens binge; I have had a min binge since making this. I think the language of Dickens lives: some of his scenes and descriptive passages are just breath-taking. I wager that they would still have real traction today if read by young people: the Harry Potter literary audience, I would hope, would devour Dickens.
- Joanna we have already talked about the scene where Catherine returns the bracelet to Nelly, it is a heart-breaking and brutal scene. I was wondering what your take on it was?
Joanna Scanlon: I thought there was almost a complicity between these two women that love the same man. It is a complex set of emotions because it is not simply filled with bitterness as there is some affection in it as well – for me, it was about exploring that.
Felicity is a wonderful actress and in that scene I couldn’t not melt looking at her young and beautiful face. There is a tenderness and almost an emotional tenderness towards her. Ralph was in charge of how that scene was going to play out, but the energy between the two of us together was tenderness.
At the same time, I was aware of an enormous sadness, as here is Catherine Dickens having her last hurrah: she is about to be banished. Today, that just wouldn’t happen, despite the fact that very same scenario may take place. I am that age and I feel like my life is just beginning. So there is a melancholy and a nostalgia mixed with a tenderness towards this young girl.
I wouldn’t want to go back to being young as I wouldn’t want to go through all of that pain again: it was looking at that through this character of Nelly Ternan. It was a tough ride for her being Dickens’ mistress.
- It has been said that Dickens captured the imagination of sensationalism and sensitivity, how much would you agree with that?
Ralph Fiennes: I think Dickens is a genius. I think his portrayal of different characters, his stories, his portrayal of England, his use of prose, his sense of drama is fantastic. He is a genius story-teller who knows how to keep his audience waiting.
I know people have their critique of Dickens, but with Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend I have been transported. I think he is profoundly sensitive to the nuances of character. The power of his description just blows me away.
The BFI London Film Festival runs 9th to 20th October.
Tagged in BFI London Film Festival