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The Invisible Woman - Ralph Fiennes interview

The Invisible Woman

Interview by Rob Carnevale

RALPH Fiennes talks about bringing The Invisible Woman to the screen as both director and leading man, including why he had reservations initially about playing Charles Dickens.

He also discusses why he only recently went on a Dickens binge and came to appreciate him as a genius, even going so far as to say that Harry Potter fans would devour his books if given the opportunity. He was speaking at a press conference held during the 2013 London Film Festival.

Q What was your inspiration for doing the film?
Ralph Fiennes: What moved me, or inspired me almost in conjunction, was a an earlier draft of the screenplay by Abi Morgan and, alongside it, Claire Tomlin’s wonderful biography of the same name. I didn’t know the story about Ellen ‘Nelly’ Ternan, and didn’t know much about Dickens, I’m afraid, and was totally transported by the story of this woman who had been the mistress of Dickens and had gone on to reclaim her life. Abi’s screenplay really affected me and then I was totally ambushed by Claire’s biography: this brilliant depiction of a girl’s life, of an actress’s life, of women in the Victorian theatre.

Dickens was a major player in the story and as a proposition to direct it was very appealing. I had initially not wanted… the offer had come with asking me if I wanted to do both and initially I said that I didn’t. And then I worked with Abi at length on the screenplay in my kitchen… Abi typing away and me doing the parts she was writing (she’d written some wonderful scenes). I think I did all the parts at different times, but the part of Dickens sort of wormed its way into my consciousness I suppose, and I eventually turned round and said “yes please”.

Q. As someone who is very private themselves, what made you go for this particular angle – revealing the private story of a very well known person? And what do you think today’s press would have made of it? Would it have remained a secret and would it have been a good thing had it remained a secret?
Ralph Fiennes: Well, what drew me to direct it was that it was the story of Nelly. That came first. Then Dickens. He was a huge factor, clearly. But it was really her dilemma that moved me. But sure, I’ve been in the front line of a curious press. That was definitely an element: a man known and famous for his work and suddenly within his private life things start to shift and fall apart. I have a theory that in Victorian times people didn’t want scandal. Generally, it was uncomfortable for everyone. I have a feeling that wherever people could stop scandal there being a scandal they would.

So, if you had all kinds of things going on in your private life, which would have been socially unacceptable, as long as they were never socially present. It was ok. But once it became known socially, once Dickens took Nelly Terner to visit an ummarried woman – as she is in the film – then she’s offended. But I think today that does not exist. I think there is a dangerous vicarious curiosity to which we have now become addicted; it’s part of our make-up. We want to know about people’s private lives.

Over decades the press and the media have led to this expectancy that we have the right to know – I don’t think that was the case at the time. Dickens was obsessively secret about his relationship, and I don’t think he would have the chance today.

Q. At the same time, do you think if he were around today he would be an inveterate Tweeter?
Ralph Fiennes: Yes, it’s possible. I don’t know anything about Tweets [smiles].

Q. When you’re directing yourself in a role – does that change your perspective?
Ralph Fiennes: Since I’ve made this film, I’ve acted in two films and I would say the experience of having got behind the camera on two films, Coriolanus and now Invisible Woman that you can’t go back to the same sort of innocence. When you’ve made decisions about cameras and interpreting scenes as a director, so when you are jus an actor again, you are very curious about where someone is putting a camera and how they’re moving it around. It’s also a relief, have done both, just being an actor again. But I’ve always been really curious about what decisions a director is making, aside from how they are directing the actors. And now I think I’m even more curious to see what is it that I’m a part of. But when it comes to approaching a role, I think nothing much has changed.

Q. You’re quoted as having said there’s a disconnection between Shakespeare and modern audiences. Do you think there’s a similar disconnection growing between modern audiences and Dickens and given you said you didn’t know much about him, do you care if there is?
Ralph Fiennes: There are two different things. I think one is about language. I think Shakespeare increasingly is harder for younger audiences to connect with because of the way English language is changing and the way we use it. So, the richness of Shakespeare’s language… it’s a challenge for younger people to get excited about it. With Dickens, weirdly, because I’d never been asked to study him on any exam syllabus – I’d seen lots of adaptations, we even had as a family A Christmas Carol on vinyl, and we memorized it by heart… but for some reason, I had never pulled Dickens from the bookcase. Maybe because everyone was always: “Dickens, Dickens, Dickens, Dickens”.

So, it took me until two years ago … I’d read Little Dorrit, I’d liked Little Dorrit, but I’d never run off to have a Dickens binge. But I have had a mini binge since doing this and he’s brilliant. And actually I think the language of Dickens really lives. Some of his scenes and descriptive passages are just breathtaking, and I would wager that they would still have real traction if read today by young people. The Harry Potter literary audience, the young people who read Harry Potter, I would wager that they would devour Dickens today.

Q. On the subject of your Dickens binge, how important were the locations?
Ralph Fiennes: We went to Margate, but didn’t use it. We went to Gadshill a couple of times, which is the original Dickens House. We did have the conversation about whether we could use the Gadshill, which is now a school, but it wasn’t practical.

Q. It’s been said that Dickens captured the imagination of sensationalism and sensitivity – would you agree with that?
Ralph Fiennes: I think he’s a genius. I think his portrayal of different kinds of characters, his stories, his portrayal of England, his use of prose, his sense of drama, his sense of how to keep a story in the air – he’s a brilliant, genius storyteller, a man who knows how to keep his audience waiting. A master of character and suspence. I know there are people who have had their critique of Dickens, but particularly in Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend I have been absolutely transported. He can create a sensation in his stories and he’s a profoundly sensitive writer when it comes to the nuances of character. I have heard said that he might not write the interior lives of his characters the way a modern novelist might, but I slightly beg to differ. I sense the interior lives of his characters when I read. But most of all, the power of his descriptions just blows me away.

Read our review of The Invisible Woman

Read our interview with Joanna Scanlan