At a table at the Chateau Marmont restaurant on the Sunset Strip, British actors Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones have the relaxed look of most Angelenos. It’s a far cry from the Victorian couple they portray in "The Invisible Woman," which Fiennes directed and stars in. (The film opens Friday in Utah.)
He plays Charles Dickens and she a young actress named Ellen Ternan, the subject of the title. Nearly three decades her senior, the great author fell hopelessly in love with "Nelly," as she was called, the youngest — and least talented — of three acting sisters. Dickens’ affection for her was so great that despite his image as a consummate gentleman of the era, he separated from his wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), who had given him 10 children.
"He was very protective of his relationship with his public," Fiennes observes, "and never publicly acknowledged his affair with Nelly."
Still, Dickens couldn’t help himself and did something that would be a public-relations nightmare today. He wrote to newspapers defending and defining his separation from his wife, although never mentioning a mistress.
"He was seen as this family man, so leaving her for Nelly would have been a contradiction," notes Jones, whose character’s mother is played by Kristin Scott Thomas, who co-starred with Fiennes in the Oscar-winning "The English Patient."
Nelly meets Dickens when she performs in a play by the author’s friend Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander). But we meet Nelly earlier in "The Invisible Woman," some years after Dickens’ death in 1870. By then, she has reinvented herself — marrying a man much younger than her after knocking some 14 years off her real age and becoming the mother of a young son.
While many think of Dickens as simply the author of classic works like "Great Expectations," "A Tale of Two Cities" and "A Christmas Carol," he was also an entertainer, an actor and director. He would do dramatic readings of his writings (a lucrative enterprise), and many of his novels were serialized, ensuring a steady stream of income and celebrity.
"He had this ferocious energy, crazy — writing, walking and drinking. I couldn’t keep up with him," says Fiennes, who recently turned 51. "He was constantly entertaining, being surrounded by family and friends, and creating parlor games and social events, constantly on the road throughout his life."
So while Dickens was frantically trying to deny his affair with Nelly, the couple would travel in public together, using fake names. "Nelly and Dickens were comfortable being other characters," Jones says. "They would pretend to be different couples. She was well aware of the difference between appearance and reality and how to manipulate it, which she showed in her marriage."
As an actress, Nelly knew her profession was often looked down upon — especially as a woman — and she felt uneasy about being seen as merely Dickens’ mistress, although she loved him.
Fiennes says he was attracted to the story after reading the screenplay by Emmy winner Abi Morgan ("The Hour," "The Iron Lady") based on the 1990 book by Claire Tomalin.
"Abi was amazingly generous. The script was quite good, but there were things that I wanted to understand. I wanted to find my way into the screenplay," says Fiennes, who recently starred in an adaptation of Dickens’ "Great Expectations" directed by Mike Newell.
So he worked through the script with Morgan, "with me pacing up and down doing the lines, probing them. Then, when Felicity came on board it brought another level of investigation."
Fiennes notes that some screenwriters are very protective of their words.
"I read screenplays and some of them are very amazing, but I think film likes this malleability," Fiennes says.
He points to the time he was working on "Schindler’s List" and Steven Zaillian had "written this really great screenplay, but Steven Spielberg would say to me: ‘It’s really good, but just change it, change a tiny word or anything just so it doesn’t become this respected piece of text.’ I think film likes something to seep out."
A complication in "The Invisible Woman," though, is the Victorian-era speech.
"We wanted to keep the formality and the phrasing of it, but we also wanted to inhabit it as naturally as possible," Fiennes says.
Jones adds, "Much of the film was about the public and private divide — where the characters in their public lives try to protect themselves by choosing their words very carefully. But in their private moments, it’s a much looser rhythm."Next Page >
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