THE INVISIBLE WOMAN
Creating the world of Dickens and Nelly
The look of 19th
Century England was fastidiously researched and recreated for the film which
shot for 10 weeks throughout the early summer of 2012. Fiennes felt strongly that the way into
the period drama for the audience was to make it appear as real as possible. This belief
encompassed the type of wallpaper and the weight of the dress fabric, as well as ensuring every
letter burnt by Dickens in one scene is authentic and, folded as it would have been.
The crowd even shouted the actual names of the horses that raced at Doncaster on Derby Day in
1857. "I believe that if everything is very detailed, audiences feel the world," Fiennes explains.
One of the major reference points for this was William Powell Frith's famous painting "The
Derby Day" of circa 1850. "We were going over it with a magnifying glass," says production
designer Maria Djurkovic. "Somebody with a lobster here, a dog on a lead there. We have tried
to be as accurate as we can without being slavish to it. It's a balance, that's what's fun about it."
Fiennes assembled an impressive group of UK heads of department. In addition to the award-
winning Djurkovic, who picked up prizes from both the British Independent Film Awards and
the European Film Academy for her work on the 2011 Cold War thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier
Spy, Fiennes brought in Rob Hardy BSC as director of photography after seeing his work on
James Marsh's 2012 film Shadow Dancer.
Fiennes had also worked with costume designer Michael O'Connor on The Duchess in 2008, for
which O'Connor had won a BAFTA and an Oscar. Similarly, make-up and hair designer Jenny
Shircore had earned an Oscar and a BAFTA for her work on Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth in 1998
and had gone on to transform Fiennes into Magwitch in 2011 for Great Expectations. Locations
work was overseen by the experienced Dutch-born location manager Michael Harm.
For the look of the film, Fiennes wanted a rather melancholy palette for the 1870s scenes that
book-end the film. Set in Margate in Kent on England's south coast, the exteriors were shot just
a few miles away on the commanding sweep of Camber Sands on which Hardy captured a low,
wintery light. For the interiors of the Margate school where Nelly lived with her husband and
child, Djurkovic translated the look into muted tones and a quiet, subdued aesthetic.
By contrast, the flashback scenes, where Nelly first meets Dickens 15 years before, represent a
complete gear-change in colours and atmosphere. "The early stuff is her memory and her
excitement at meeting this extraordinary man," explains Djurkovic.
Costume designer Michael O'Connor was able to use photography from the time, as well as the
Frith painting and others by Dickens' contemporary Augustus Egg, to explore how the clothes of
the time would have been constructed. "What Ralph was keen to do was to use the costumes
more than once," says O'Connor. "There's nothing more unconvincing than people who keep
changing all the time. In those days people did wear the same bonnet and re-trim it for a different
"As an actor, that's what you love," comments Perdita Weeks who plays Nelly's eldest sister,
Maria Ternan. "It doesn't matter if the clothes are a bit smelly or you've spilt something down
them. Otherwise you're walking around like a perfect Barbie and if feels completely removed
from anything you're doing."
One of O'Connor's biggest challenges was working out what Nelly, the invisible woman, might
have worn at two very distinct stages in her life. "The pictures show this arched kind of woman,"
he explains. "But they are later pictures and they are posed pictures. To find the woman who
woke up in a cold cottage in the morning and went to the theatre and did a sort of average
performance has been very difficult."
O'Connor worked with Felicity Jones to build Nelly's character subtly through costume. "You
think it's just a costume but the detail, every layer is completely accurate as to how it would have
been," says Jones of working with O'Connor. "With Michael O'Connor costumes, you just feel
like a real person."
The transformative power of costumes came into play when dressing Kristin Scott Thomas as
Mrs Ternan. "Kristin will look elegant in anything she puts on and the idea was to make her real,
was to try and stop that happening. The temptation with Kristin is to make her dark and
streamlined but in this period of lots of trim and fuss, you can add lots of accessories, trim and
lace collars - things that that help go against what is natural for Kristin" says O'Connor.
As in any period drama, the hair and make-up work was very important. "Putting a centre parting
in somebody's head and scraping it down either side of their face when they're used to having curly flouncy hair just immediately transforms you, as does putting on a girdle. It takes you into
another period straight away," says Shircore.
"You also have to keep the actors in mind," she continues. "You have to keep their faces in
mind, what suits them in the period, and also what their input is."
Most of the shoot took place on location in Kent, and in and around London with just two studio
days filming the interior of the railway carriage. The exteriors of the derailment were staged in a
siding of the Bluebell Railway, which operates heritage steam locomotives, in Sussex.
As in most of Dickens' novels, all the places described in Morgan's script existed. Location
manager Michael Harm started by checking out the real addresses. If they no longer existed or
were unsuitable for filming, Hale found matching houses and interiors. The biggest challenge
was the contemporary fittings now adorning many of London's Georgian and Victorian houses
as well as Dickens' Gads Hill home in Rochester, which had been turned into a school.
"It is an awful lot to do to get rid of all the modern fittings, the beautiful wall- to- wall carpets,
the down-lighters, all the modern light switches," says Harm "So the search has to focus on
where we have as little as possible for the art department and the construction department to do
to make that work."
For example, although the exterior of Manchester's Free Trade Hall where The Frozen Deep
rehearsal took place still looks authentic, the interior had been turned into a modern hotel. Harm
and his team discovered the interior could be reconstituted at London's opulent Draper's Hall in
the City of London.
"We managed to do an awful lot in a short time," he says. "Ralph Fiennes is a very visual
director, so can describe very clearly what he's after. We were able to narrow down very quickly
the ones that worked for him."
"He's incredibly visual," agrees Djurkovic. "He draws really well and does these amazing
storyboards. Lots of directors do their own storyboards but Ralph's are really good!"
For his part, when he took on the project, first as director, then as director and star, Fiennes says
he was cheerfully ignorant of most of Dickens' work, ignorant of Ellen Ternan, and hadn't read
Claire Tomalin's book.
"I was more drawn to Russian writers -- Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy", he explains. "At school I had
somehow decided I wouldn't like Dickens. Maybe it was being overexposed to a recording of A
Christmas Carol that we listened to as a family. I think I decided Dickens was too cosy, or
comfy perhaps. I feel the opposite now."
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