THE INVISIBLE WOMAN
Portraying Charles Dickens
Fiennes did not intend to play Charles Dickens himself at first. But if he had doubts, others did
not. "I kept saying to him, 'You must play Dickens! You were born to do it!" recalls Tomalin.
"For me it was always going to be Ralph but it was just a process of persuading him," smiles
"I was undecided for a long time," Fiennes admits. "Until after quite a few months of working
on it, I felt, despite knowing it would be very difficult, that I couldn't resist playing him."
The Charles Dickens revealed in THE INVISIBLE WOMAN is a man possessed of ferocious
energy. Not only does he juggle a young mistress with marriage and 10 children, but he
successfully maintains a vigorous writing regime and roles as a journalist, actor, theatre director
and social campaigner.
"In a funny way, that probably helped me because it was very Dickens to be organising people
and doing everything," says Fiennes, of the enormity of the role he undertook as director and
lead actor. "He was in control of everything."
As too was Fiennes. "It was Herculean what he did," says Gaby Tana. "Ralph was so prepared
and so diligent. He immersed himself in the world of Dickens, which he didn't really know."
"He will not let anything go, he doesn't let you take the easy option," says Felicity Jones, the
rising UK star who plays Ellen Ternan. "You'll be doing 15, 20 takes as he always wants to get
something completely honest."
"He's like a laser, he won't let anything slip by," says Amanda Hale, who plays Nelly's middle
sister Maria Ternan. "His emphasis is so much on performance, which is quite rare."
For Kristen Scott Thomas, who plays Nelly's mother, Mrs Ternan, it was the third time she had
worked with Fiennes following their famous on-screen love affair in The English Patient, for
which they were both nominated for Oscars.. "I enjoyed being directed by Ralph as much as I
enjoy acting with him," she says. "I'm in awe of what he's doing. He's keeping it all in the right
place, with everything ticking over and at the same time he manages to remain one of the team as
far as the actors are concerned."
Abi Morgan compares Fiennes' dynamism with that of Dickens'. "The tenderness, the
sentimentality, the viciousness, and the brutality you can see in his work, they're embodied in the
man. He can be co-writer, he can be director, he can be actor, and he can be production designer.
He doesn't jump through those roles, he flows, and it flows through him."
For Fiennes, it was very important to convey Dickens' vitality, his love of life, and the sheer
force of his charm. He points to the cheerful organised chaos of the rehearsal of The Frozen
Deep, the first scene in which Dickens' appears, as crucial to this depiction. He describes
Dickens as a man of "extraordinary imaginative power and range".
Like everyone working on the film, both Fiennes and Morgan were drawn to the complexity of
Dickens, a revered man but one whose behaviour towards his wife was at times shocking.
"I knew people might not like him, that didn't worry me," says Fiennes. "He's a huge soul. And,
as a man, deeply fallible. We can jump to judging him very quickly. Abi and I tried to show in
simple scenes, the sense of a marriage, it's not people hating each other, but the spark has gone
and there's a sort of a matter of fact-ness. I can't help thinking Dickens was looking for a real
connection with a woman which he hadn't found with his wife. I think he saw Ellen Ternan and
she was the ideal he had always written about. There she was, and that was that. He had to have
Morgan believes a creative chaos may have been at work, compelling the 45 year-old Dickens to
fall in love with an 18 year-old actress. "Your 40s are interesting," she muses. "There is a
compulsion to shake it up sometimes and there's a compulsion to take yourself as a person to
different places because that informs your writing. That's what draws creative people to
catastrophe and to drama sometimes because it's also where there energy starts to burn and
where they get a lot of creative material from."
Directing himself forced Fiennes to be unflinching when considering his performance.
"I have to look at myself, sit with my editor, choose the take. This is exposing and can be really
tough" he says. "But editing any performance is an endless, wonderful, often infuriating puzzle.
No one moment is ever the same. During the shoot I wait to catch the wave where it all becomes
one thing. You can push, pull, cajole, tease, be brusque, be loving or be flattering or do nothing
and just wait. It's probably best to just wait, which is hard on a film set."
One person who found Fiennes' multiple roles a slight challenge was the Oscar-winning make-
up and hair designer Jenny Shircore, who had just worked with Fiennes on Mike Newell's Great
Expectations in which he had starred as Magwitch. "To get him to sit still while I checked
something was not as easy as it normally is because he was always thinking about the next shot
and wanting to be there," she says.
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