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