THE INVISIBLE WOMAN
Breathing Life into THE INVISIBLE WOMAN
In 2010, Just after Ralph Fiennes finished making his directorial debut Coriolanus, in which he
had also starred, Gabrielle Tana, his producer on that film, approached him with a new directing
THE INVISIBLE WOMAN was being developed by Stewart Mackinnon of the UK's Headline
Pictures, who owned the film rights to Claire Tomalin's acclaimed 1990 biography of the same
name. Her book was about the young actress, Ellen Ternan, who had had a long, secret love
affair with Charles Dickens and then reinvents herself after his death.
Mackinnon was developing the project with Christine Langan, the head of BBC Films, and the
gifted screenwriter Abi Morgan, whose credits include Shame, The Iron Lady, and BBC TV
series The Hour.
Langan brought on board Tana as lead producer and Fiennes subsequently joined as director.
"I felt moved by this woman and her secret past," says Fiennes of what made the project
compelling to him. "I wanted to make a film about how Ellen Ternan became the mistress of
Charles Dickens. I also think the film is about a woman holding a past relationship inside her,
which has marked her forever, and of which she is unable to speak."
He immediately began working on the script with Morgan and the project gained momentum "It
took about nine months to all come together while we were working on the script, casting,
putting together our ideal crew," says Tana, who first worked with Fiennes on Saul Dibb's
sumptuous 2008 period drama The Duchess. "I was busy raising the money at the same time."
THE INVISIBLE WOMAN is a co-production between Headline Pictures and Tana's Magnolia
Mae Films, with development and production funding from BBC Films and the BFI Film Fund, as well as private US financing. London-based WestEnd Films co-financed the project and is
handling worldwide sales.
Until she met Fiennes, Morgan had been grappling with different versions of the screenplay,
including the introduction of several fictitious elements. Fiennes suggested pulling it back to
what Tomalin had unearthed in her book.
Although he doesn't write himself, Fiennes brought an interesting extra dimension to the
collaboration with Morgan. "It's very exciting when you work with an actor-director because he
could literally get up, be very physical and move around the room to illustrate his point," says
Morgan. "It's an incredible privilege to work with someone who is not only a great director but
one of the country's leading actors and to see his process. That really informed the writing
process. Most directors aren't very good at saying the lines. He was very good at visualising and
understanding how a scene would play. He would be brilliant at stripping back material as he
would know how little an actor actually needs."
Fiennes and Morgan talked often with, and sought advice from, Claire Tomalin. Through her
biography it was Tomalin who had been the first person to breathe life into the figure of Ellen
"It is an amazing story. It is the story of this young woman who was taken up by Dickens,"
Tomalin enthuses. "But still more fascinating was my discovery that when Dickens died, she
reinvented herself. She turned herself into a lady and she presented herself as 10 years younger.
How extraordinary to be able to carry that off. What interested me is that she seemed to represent
a whole lot of women in the 19th
century who were hidden, who had these hidden lives. And
that's why I called it The Invisible Woman. Because Dickens had taught her how to deceive,
Nelly rose up and wouldn't accept she was going to be hidden forever, and recreated herself.
Tomalin was hugely supportive of the project but removed herself from the actual screenwriting.
"Abi said to me, 'do you want to come and work with me?' and I said, 'No no no, you're the
screenwriter, I just wrote the book'," Tomalin explains. "I have made many comments on the script and they have listened to me but I wouldn't dream of trying to impose my ideas or my
Morgan decided to structure the screenplay around a series of "small tragedies and moments of
catalyst" depicted in Tomalin's book, which, for her, defined the affair. The two most significant
were Tomalin's discovery that Dickens and Nelly had conceived a child together and the effect
this had on them as a couple, and the derailment of the train in which they were travelling at
Staplehurst in Kent in 1865. Nelly was badly hurt and Dickens subsequently went to great
lengths to make it seem as if he was travelling alone. The trauma of this was something that Abi
would build on.
"It was very important to love the book and adore the book but also to clearly say we are going
to tell one story, the arc of their love story," Morgan explains. "And we counterpointed that with
a present-day narrative of the moment she reveals her secret."
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