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Ralph Fiennes on The Invisible Woman, Playing Dickens, and His Forgotten Film

Ralph Fiennes. Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

As if being one of the finest actors of our time weren’t enough, Ralph Fiennes has now become one of our most singular and talented directors as well, with last year’s tough, brilliant Shakespeare adaptation Coriolanus and now this year’s devastating Charles Dickens biopic The Invisible Woman. Actually, “biopic” is the wrong word here. The Invisible Woman charts the scandalous love affair between the beloved author (played by Fiennes), then at the height of his fame, and Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), a young actress who initially doesn’t know what to make of the married man’s advances. The filmmaking is nuanced and remarkably assured, and the performance is unforgettable. Fiennes recently sat down with Vulture to talk about the challenge of playing Dickens, his inner child, and the Fiennes film he wishes more people would see.

The way you portray Charles Dickens in this film is so physical: He’s this figure that’s constantly in motion. That active quality of his, is that something you got from historical record?
By all accounts, he was very active. There was one anecdote about Dickens which sort of sums him up. There was an account of a young woman who he was introduced to socially, at a gathering. There was an argument about Lord Byron and I think they disagreed about whether he was great or not. She dared to challenge [him], to say to Dickens, “I’m not sure if I agree, Mr. Dickens.” He, being quite prickly and quite proud, wouldn’t acknowledge her — sort of cut her off, was almost rude to her. Then they were out walking, and he grabbed her and then did this sort of mock phony dance with her. They were on the beach and the waves were lapping, and he grabbed her and did this sort of over-the-top version of the waltz or something, with a kind of mad energy. It was either him saying sorry, or else it had an element of aggression in it. And his wife Catherine called down and said, “Charles, let her go, you’ll get her skirts wet.” Many other people described this physical energy. He walked and walked these distances at high speed. These are the kinds of things that came out of me after reading all this stuff.

You’ve also acted in the recent Great Expectations film. Were you a Dickens fan before that?
I wasn’t a Dickens fan. I don’t mean it negatively. I was ignorant. I had only read Little Dorrit. I knew his obvious ones — Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations — through adaptations. And Christmas Carol. I didn’t know much about the man. I did know one thing, that Dickens today would probably have racial views that we would find uncomfortable. The Franklin Expedition, an arctic expedition that was lost looking for the Northwest Passage, this British expedition got lost, and it’s actually based on that incident that this play in the film is based, The Frozen Deep. Dickens was involved in this great debate. At the time it was officially acknowledged that the expedition was lost, Dickens decided that it was almost certainly the case that the crew were eaten by savages. I actually saw a documentary about this saying that … and they interviewed an Inuit man saying, “This is appalling for us, nothing in our culture allows for cannibalism.” I remember they re-created these scenes of Dickens saying that. “Absolutely, the savages have eaten our brave Englishmen.”

Did the two Dickens projects inform each other at all?
Playing Magwitch in Great Expectations didn’t help me play Dickens: As an acting effort, they’re completely different things, weirdly. But Great Expectations was, I think, the novel that came out of Dickens and Nelly. The relationship between the pursuit of Estella by Pip, and her reluctance for Pip — I’m sure it does, even if it’s not conscious. His imagination is so vast and huge, but I think it’s something in there that he’s writing that’s in his own life.

It’s interesting that Nelly is not a typical romantic figure. She’s not infatuated with him, he’s infatuated with her. It’s a love story, but you get the sense she’s being pulled into this thing and she doesn’t really know what she thinks.
That’s right! I said early on that Nelly is at a different series of crossroads, but she doesn’t know whether it’s this way or that way. She feels a pull towards Dickens, but she doesn’t know what it’s going to be. There’s her sense of self-respect and her reputation, so she’s constantly not knowing. And then I think, finally, she is in love with him. The scene where I think you feel it, through Felicity’s brilliant performance, is where he reads Great Expectations to her, and you see that she’s so moved by these words for her. It’s one of the most brilliant declarations of love: In all my faults, this is what I think of you. And he says, “I know what I have done.” That’s a line we put in because I feel he did know. He knew, to Nelly, he could say, “I’m only for you.”

Great Expectations is about a very young love — I read it as a lovestruck teenager, and at that time in your life, it’s pretty much the greatest book ever. Watching Invisible Woman, it’s fascinating to see that it was inspired by this older, very successful man’s infatuation with a woman.
Well, I think Dickens also saw himself as a boy. I think Dickens had a boyish … I’m sure there’s a psychoanalyst’s expression for the child within.

The Peter Pan Complex?
Peter Pan! Absolutely. And you can … Listen, I’m 50. I can feel like a boy sometimes. The inner child doesn’t leave you.

Dickens and Shakespeare, whom you of course tackled in Coriolanus, are two of the very few writers that have actually been served well by cinema. Obviously Invisible Woman is a story about Dickens and not an adaptation. But still, did that ever create any kind of pressure on you with these films? The fact that you’re working in this tradition that involves people like David Lean and Laurence Olivier?
I felt a responsibility to get Dickens right — that was the biggest thing. I didn’t want him to be easily judged in this. I guess what’s most intimidating to an actor is if there’s someone else who’s played the part before and been hugely successful. If someone has made their mark and defined a role and later on you take it on, you’re under the shadow.

Like Heathcliff?
Yeah. Exactly like Heathcliff! But I can’t find a film where Dickens has been portrayed at all — on some British TV things, I think, but I’ve not seen them. That cuts you a bit of slack. You haven’t got that in your head. But there are massive scholars and people who know Dickens inside out. I felt a responsibility to Dickens, and to Nelly. Felicity [did] also. We felt a responsibility to the complicated nature of the relationship — the funny little compromises and shifts, coming, going, Nelly retreating from Dickens and then falling for him. All those things that happen, I think, in relationships, in evolving relationships.

You’ve been in a number of very big, very high-profile movies over the years, but you’ve also been in a lot of movies that have been forgotten. Among the roles that have been, let’s say, overlooked, which one do you wish more people would see?
Well, I don’t know how overlooked it is or not, but there’s this film I did with Istvan Szabo, called Sunshine. Funnily enough, it got more recognition here, in the States, than it did in Europe. I was really shocked … Istvan had done some great movies before, so I thought it would be noticed, but it was sort of dismissed. It gave me an education in a number of things, including the history of Jewish people in Hungary. This is a story of assimilation and the tragedy of assimilation. Also, as an actor, I learned so much from [Istvan’s] way of directing. I remember him saying [in a Hungarian accent], “For me, the cinema is about the close-up. Because I want to see thoughts and emotions born on the face for the first time.” And that’s what he’s looking for, that magic. When something happens and the actor has lost all their sense of preparedness, all their emotional revving and something goes [claps]. For me, an example of that is Felicity’s close-up at the end of the movie. The camera comes around her and we see all these shifts of emotion and thought. It’s her interior life just coming through her face, but it’s not like she’s acting it. It’s just there.

Ralph Fiennes on Dickens and His Forgotten Film