Revealing 'The Invisible Woman': Ralph Fiennes directs and stars in drama about Charles Dickens' secret affair


Broadway’s one and only Tony-winning Hamlet became filmdom’s one and only Coriolanus, only because he opted to make his film-directing debut with Coriolanus. Ralph Fiennes is a veritable festival of firsts, and now he has moved on to seconds.

His second outing as an actor-director is Sony Pictures Classics’ The Invisible Woman, which is based on Claire Tomalin’s best-selling biography of Nelly Ternan, Charles Dickens’ mistress during his last years as a literary lion, writing classics like A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend and the start of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

“Gaby Tana, who was one of the Coriolanus producers, has been quietly slipping me scripts now and then,” Fiennes says, “and she came to me with The Invisible Woman. It was quite different from what ended up on the screen. The big difference was that the adapter, Abi Morgan, introduced a fictional character—a biographer of Dickens who came to Nelly, knowing the secret she’s reluctant to give up, and tried to get her to talk about Dickens. When I first read it, I went with it, but as I worked on it and researched it, this character started to pull focus, so we decided to drop him.”

Among Morgan’s previous screenplays are two titles that rarely come up in the same sentence—Shame, a Manhattan gutter-crawl with Michael Fassbender, and The Iron Lady, Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning portrayal of the befogged Margaret Thatcher.

The Invisible Women represents yet another county heard from, and Morgan makes herself completely at home in it as well. Fiennes can break into an aria about her: “Abi’s a very vital and alert woman, ferociously curious, has a springy intellect, is great to work with, very collaborative, funny, dry sense of humor, someone you find yourself being very open with and very honest with, sort of therapy-happening.”

Fiennes cast Felicity Jones in the title role when he was first designated the director, but he won’t say who he had in mind for Dickens before he decided to do it himself.

“I just fell in love with the part as it developed,” he admits a little sheepishly. “Abi would sit with her computer in my kitchen, and we’d rewrite scenes and make changes, and I’d read all the parts—Dickens and everybody else. I resisted it up to a certain point. People around me were subtly encouraging me to think I could do it.

“I could see from the first time I read it that it was a great role—a role I would love to play—but I’d just come off Coriolanus, knowing how crazily difficult it is. It’s just like having your head in a vice. You got to be on top of everything when you’re shooting.”

He finally caved and surrendered to the obvious—knowing full well the pitfalls that befall novice actor/directors. “One thing I felt on Coriolanus,” he recalls, “was always having to scramble to shoot my own performance at the last minute. People think if the actor directs himself, it becomes all about him. I actually felt the opposite. I’d be making sure somebody else was okay and then, suddenly, realize I had 20 minutes at the end of the day to shoot the majorly important close-up. My head had been elsewhere. I’d have to gather myself up into a really crucial moment, while somebody’s going, ‘We really have to wrap. Otherwise, we’re into overtime, and our budget can’t take it.’ That sort of pressure was what I found the hardest.”

Fortunately, a lot of the pre-production planning was done as Fiennes was falling in love with the Dickens character that he and Morgan were creating. “I suppose, because I had been working on it with Abi, that my sense of him grew in these scriptwriting sessions because I needed to speak our new dialogue all the time. I needed to speak our dialogue—Dickens as well as all the others. I needed to constantly feel it.

“Sometimes the part of Dickens that’s doing everything—directing a show, being in it, organizing a party—that sort of thing played into my directing the film. We were both multitasking. The two things cross-fertilized. The more intimate scenes are harder. Then you need a crew on board that’s really patient, but we got there. I think initially it’s very hard, and then what happens with a great film crew is that they work as a team. It’s demanding, but the team has its rhythm, and you get through it.”

Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence was one of the films Fiennes screened for an “atmosphere soak,” but that wasn’t the only criterion. “I saw so many different films, often with nothing to do with period. For me, it wasn’t so much like looking for the period film. It was finding the right language for the film. I watched some Visconti, some Bergman, even some David Lynch for the atmosphere and lighting. There was no electricity then, so it was a big thing for me that we got that sense of candlelight.”

Shadows were essential to The Invisible Woman because Nelly was engulfed in the ones that Dickens, at the height of his fame, cast. When their paths crossed, she was 18 and an actress, performing with her mum (Kristin Scott Thomas) and sister (Perdita Weeks) The Frozen Deep, a play he had co-written with Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander), and he was making a substantial mark for himself as an amateur actor, reading his works. Theatre had begun to pull him away from home and hearth—and light years away from his wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), and their brood of ten.

Having ten children underfoot is not the most conducive writing atmosphere, “but Dickens liked to write with people around. Of course, he insisted on absolute silence. The children grew up with: ‘You must be quiet. Your father is writing.’ He could be a very frightening and controlling father.”

Dickens has other personal warts on display in this picture, and Fiennes expects audiences to be quite divided about the man he presents here. “I’ve had people say, ‘Dickens is such a bastard,’ and then there are other people who go, ‘No, it was tough. He was that kind of guy. He had to get out.’ I feel that there is going to be a mix of responses, which, of course, is good.”

The Invisible Woman is a little like looking behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz in that it unveils a naked and rather manipulative Dickens. “He’s a funny one to think of as a sexual being because the world knows him by so many other faces—the social Dickens, the sort of effervescent theatre man, the man who reads and entertains and walks the streets of London—but the sexual Dickens is strange because you can’t imagine he can feel some sensuality. There’s not much in his books. When he writes about the attractions between men and women, he’s pure.”

His extramarital affair with Nelly loosened that moral rigidity a bit. “What’s interesting about Our Mutual Friend,” notes Fiennes, “is you do feel that there’s an attraction between a man and a woman—an erotic component, a more romantic love, more physical—not overtly. I just sensed it there more than in his other work.”

It’s a bit shocking, and more than a little poignant, to see that the relationship produced a stillborn, illegitimate child. “There’s no proof of that,” Fiennes cautions, “but Claire’s book makes quite a thorough proposal that this could have happened, and there have been several other writers who have circled around that possibility.”

How the relationship opened Dickens up and spilled over into his stories is a matter of much speculation. “Our Mutual Friend is interesting because it’s got these two love affairs going on, and I think that Nelly and Dickens are present in both of them. And it’s fascinating to read Great Expectations, thinking maybe some bits of Nelly are kind of a prototype for Estella, that perhaps Nelly was playing very hard to get. I think she definitely didn’t make it easy. Claire’s book suggests Miss Havisham is a version of Nelly’s mother—just heightened and given the full Gothic treatment.

“But the biggest change in Great Expectations is Pip and Estella not coming together. They separate, and years later Pip comes across her in Piccadilly, and she’s married to a doctor. He finishes the novel, saying something like ‘With the passing of time, even though we were not together, I felt she understood what my heart had been.’ Then, someone said, ‘It’s too brutal. You have them separating and Pip saying, “She realized what I felt,”’ so he changed it to ‘I saw the shadow of no parting with her.’”

The Invisible Woman begins and ends with Nelly settled into married life with a Margate school headmaster, George Wharton Robinson (Tom Burke). A local production of No Thoroughfare: A Drama in Five Acts by Dickens and Collins has caused her to start flashbacking over her affair with the famous writer. At the end, she returns to the real-world present tense and her husband, like Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter.

“When I was in various stages of pitching it to producers or trying to clarify for people what it was, that was the film allusion I went for,“ Fiennes confesses. “She comes home at the end and says, ‘I’m here, I’m here,’ and she starts to tell her husband, but he cuts her off with ‘The memories of a child.’ She has been saying all along, ‘I was a child,’ and she wasn’t. It’s his way of saying, ‘I don’t want to know.’

“That moment was the reason I wanted to do the film—to get to a place where someone can have a kind of closure for their past life, whether it’s a love affair or a relationship that has marked them and they haven’t had closure with it or haven’t even been able to talk about it. As I was working on the script with Abi, I felt we needed to see her talk about Dickens. For a lot of the film, Nelly’s on the end of Dickens’ love and maneuvering, and I just felt that she needed, finally, to speak."