SE­CRET LIFE OF DICK­ENS

Ralph Fi­ennes’s new film re­veals the man be­hind the lit­er­ary leg­end, writes Michael Bodey

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

RALPH Fi­ennes didn’t have any pre­con­cep­tions about tak­ing on the role of Charles Dick­ens. Af­ter all, the Vic­to­rian English nov­el­ist hasn’t been the sub­ject of any de­fin­i­tive film about his life. “So in a way there’s clear wa­ter,” Fi­ennes notes.

Con­se­quently Fi­ennes has de­liv­ered in his new film, The In­vis­i­ble Woman, the de­fin­i­tive cin­e­matic ver­sion of the au­thor of Great Ex­pec­ta­tions, Oliver! and A Christ­mas Carol, I jest.

“No, well, I wouldn’t say that, but there’s no sort of fright­en­ing Michael Red­grave Dick­ens or some­thing like that,” Fi­ennes replies be­fore quickly turn­ing from ac­tor to the di­rec­tor he has be­come.

“That was a good bit of cast­ing, ac­tu­ally, Michael Red­grave as Dick­ens,” he muses hap­pily of his off-the-cuff sug­ges­tion. “He would have been amaz­ing.”

In­deed, Red­grave did play Dick­ens in a 1967 tele­vi­sion pro­gram, Mr Dick­ens of Lon­don, al­though few would re­mem­ber it. There have been sev­eral TV “screen Dick­ens”, in­clud­ing Si­mon Cal­low, yet cin­ema has barely touched his por­trayal other than within the many film ver­sions of A Christ­mas Carol.

Dick­ens’s life has been well doc­u­mented in print, with the first bi­og­ra­phy of the ec­cen­tric lit­er­ary fig­ure com­ing from his friend John Forster just two years af­ter his death in 1870. Fi­ennes de­scribes that work as “as very clean, don’t-dis­turb-the-wa­ters ac­count” of the writer’s life. “Dick­ens is al­most canon­ised, so it took a while for people to dare to say there was this se­cret, this other life,” he says.

That se­cret is the sub­ject of The In­vis­i­ble Woman, adapted by Abi Mor­gan from Claire To­ma­lin’s book of the same name. (To­ma­lin sub­se­quently re­leased Charles Dick­ens: A Life in 2011.) To­ma­lin in­ves­ti­gated the no­tion that Dick­ens, the fa­ther of 10 chil­dren, had an af­fair with ac­tress Ellen “Nelly” Ter­nan, for whom he left his wife in 1858, when he was 46 and she was 19. And the book and film spec­u­late, with some strength, that she had a child to Dick­ens in France.

“He was ob­ses­sively se­cre­tive about Nelly and also people were se­cret with him,” says Fi­ennes. “His own chil­dren cer­tainly would have known and (wife) Cather­ine Dick­ens in old age is re­ported (to have) said the words: ‘There was a child.’ ”

Fi­ennes re­mains slightly in­cred­u­lous that To­ma­lin’s book was re­leased 23 years ago and re­ceived well yet the idea of Dick­ens’s sec­ond life “hasn’t per­me­ated”. “This film has been a very in­ter­est­ing ex­pe­ri­ence be­cause people are ask­ing is it true.”

The power of cin­ema, Fi­ennes’s ex­cel­lent job and the lead per­for­mance of a won­der­ful Felic­ity Jones will make it true now; al­though there is broad ac­cep­tance of To­ma­lin’s propo­si­tion, ex­cept from Peter Ack­royd, who wrote a spec­u­la­tive bi­og­ra­phy of the writer in 1991.

“I think ab­so­lutely it hap­pened,” Fi­ennes says. “Claire’s book is so per­sua­sive I couldn’t put my head into the place where it didn’t hap­pen. The child is the only thing people could get heated about.”

A cou­ple of gaps in Dick­ens’s very pub­lic life sug­gest he did in­deed travel to France to care for Ter­nan dur­ing the “il­le­git­i­mate preg­nancy”. And, Fi­ennes notes, for a film it was a very strong dra­matic hook.

The ac­tor, best known for Academy Award­nom­i­nated per­for­mances in The English Pa­tient and Schindler’s List, as well as his role as Volde­mort in the Harry Pot­ter film se­ries and now as Mon­sieur Gus­tave in Wes An­der­son’s pop­u­lar The Grand Bu­dapest Ho­tel, is think­ing like a di­rec­tor. He says he was en­er­gised by his de­but as a di­rec­tor, Coriolanus, a mus­cly mod­ern adap­ta­tion of Shake­speare’s venge­ful play. When his pro­ducer Gabrielle Tran gave him Mor­gan’s screen­play, he didn’t see him­self di­rect­ing a Vic­to­rian story about Dick­ens.

“But I just got moved by the sort of com­pli­cated na­ture of Nelly and Dick­ens and how that in­ti­macy evolved,” he ex­plains.

He was par­tic­u­larly moved by the film’s con­clu­sion and sub­se­quently Jones’s por­trayal of Ter­nan’s lot. “I hope the au­di­ence feels she’s come to this sense of ac­cep­tance about her life,” he says. “That’s what re­ally moved me. It was al­ways a very in­ti­mate and quite re­strained sort of piece.

“I didn’t see it as sort of a big sweep­ing vi­o­lin score style film. I wanted it to be about the in- cre­men­tal shift of two people com­ing to­wards each other and even when they’re to­gether … it’s fraught with com­pro­mise.

“So the film’s about the sort of grey ar­eas be­tween people,” he adds. “The para­dox, I sup­pose, when people are close and in­ti­mate they also have big spa­ces be­tween them.”

Fi­ennes is very much in a di­rec­tor’s headspace. He will reprise his role as the new M in the com­ing James Bond film and re­turn to the stage in Ge­orge Bernard Shaw’s Man and Su­per­man next year, but be­yond that he is hunt­ing for his next di­rect­ing project. Ideally, it will be some­thing con­tem­po­rary. “I’m look­ing now, look­ing, read­ing,” he says. “I haven’t found it yet but I want to find it.”

He has learned from an eclec­tic ar­ray of ac­com­plished di­rec­tors in his two decades on screen. He cites The English Pa­tient’s Anthony Minghella, Steven Spiel­berg and Hun­gar­ian mas­ter Ist­van Sz­abo ( Sun­shine) as the three from whom he has learned most.

He was re­luc­tant ini­tially to por­tray Dick­ens be­cause of the “dou­ble duty” of act­ing and di­rect­ing. But he knew while work­ing on scenes with Mor­gan, the screen­writer of The Iron Lady and The Hour, that he was “in de­nial”.

“Fi­nally I said I wanted to do it, I could see it was a great part,” he says. Now he can laugh at the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween his dual role and the life of Dick­ens in the film.

De­spite Dick­ens’s role as a revered and pop­u­lar racon­teur and nov­el­ist, he was a con­trol freak who pro­duced his own am­a­teur pro­duc­tions in his home or for char­ity events with metic­u­lous at­ten­tion.

“So there I was di­rect­ing and act­ing on this film, be­ing this man di­rect­ing and act­ing, and sort of the two things seemed to have bled into each other,” Fi­ennes says, laugh­ing.

They are amus­ing and in­sight­ful scenes con­trast­ing the vi­brant fam­ily life and pas­sions of an au­thor we have vi­su­alised pri­mar­ily through aus­tere hed­cut por­traits. And, in a fash­ion, the scenes con­tem­po­rise the pe­riod set­ting.

Fi­ennes notes the pe­riod genre need not be fusty. “Un­der­neath all these bon­nets and frock coats, they’ve got their bod­ily func­tions and de­sires and dis­ap­point­ments like us,” he says.

“They’ve in­her­ited cul­ture, man­ners, a cer­tain way of speak­ing, eti­quette and so on, but whether it’s Dick­ens or Jane Austen or Tol­stoy, why they still have cur­rency is the hu­man stuff at the cen­tre of it, is stuff you still recog­nise.”

That said, The In­vis­i­ble Woman’s de­sign is beau­ti­ful and au­then­tic. Michael O’Con­nor’s cos­tume de­sign was re­cently nom­i­nated for an Academy Award.

“I don’t think the film should dwell on these things as if to say look at this set or cos­tumes,” Fi­ennes says. “(But) some of the com­ments that have re­ally de­lighted have been when people said it felt re­ally real. If that’s the case, they felt a life go­ing on, then that’s good.”

In Aus­tralian cin­e­mas, the other cin­e­matic life be­ing cel­e­brated is An­der­son’s in­cred­i­bly stylised The Grand Bu­dapest Ho­tel, in which Fi­ennes plays the ec­cen­tric ho­tel concierge Gus­tave H. “It’s good, isn’t it?” the charm­ing Brit says. “I don’t think I’ve been asked to be at the cen­tre of a film like that with such a par­tic­u­lar brand of comic hu­mour. That’s Wes, though.”

An­der­son’s di­rec­tion is un­like oth­ers, Fi­ennes ex­plains. “You sign up for it and then you need to em­brace the pre­ci­sion of it.”

The script is as par­tic­u­lar as his pro­duc­tion de­sign, he adds. “The di­a­logue is not re­ally up for dis­cus­sion,” he says with a laugh, re­call­ing An­der­son’s propen­sity for tak­ing on board any minute sug­ges­tions from ac­tors be­fore al­ways con­clud­ing: “Well, I kind of like the way it is.”

“I felt his style is so strong and so par­tic­u­lar, that I didn’t re­ally want (to fight it). He’s a sort of com­poser in a way. One or two times I felt a bit con­strained, but I think that’s a chal­lenge.”

Fi­ennes re­counted a din­ner with Tom Stop­pard in which the play­wright asked him what he was up to. Fi­ennes replied he’d filmed The Con­stant Gar­dener with “this great Brazil­ian, Fer­nando Meirelles”.

“Tom asked how he was and I said it’s great, he likes to kick the script around, he likes to change stuff. He doesn’t want to be con­strained by the writ­ing.”

“And Tom said (slowly): ‘ Yes — pause — he sounds like some­one who should be stopped.’ ”

The In­vis­i­ble Woman is screen­ing na­tion­ally.

Ralph Fi­ennes di­rects and stars in The In­vis­i­ble

Woman; be­low, in char­ac­ter as Vic­to­rian nov­el­ist Charles Dick­ens

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