THE INVISIBLE WOMAN directed by Ralph Fiennes, written by Abi Morgan from the book by Claire Tomalin, with Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas and Joanna Scanlan. A Mongrel Media release. 111 minutes. Opens January 17. See listing.
Outwardly, at least, Ralph Fiennes is a very calm man.
In the flurry of the Toronto Film Festival, he's sitting quietly in a hotel suite on a rainy day. We're speaking about Charles Dickens, whom Fiennes plays in his new film, The Invisible Woman, and as we do he leans in close, as though he's about to share a secret about a man who's been dead for nearly a century and a half.
"There's so much darkness in Dickens," Fiennes says in a hushed voice, steely despite the softness of his delivery. "It's in descriptions as much as in characters; there's these sort of layers of shadow and uncertainty in certain situations [and] characters that are quite disturbing. I think there was a sort of fury in the creative energy in Dickens."
That was his way into the heart of the esteemed English novelist, whose relationship with Felicity Jones's Nelly Ternan makes up the bulk of Fiennes's biographical drama.
The actor's directorial follow-up to Coriolanus, it seems to have been made by a different artist entirely. Its quiet, observant tone is a radical departure from the visceral, immediate fury of Fiennes's take on Shakespeare.
"I think I came away from Coriolanus wanting to experience something much more... I suppose you might say classic," he says. "I'm actually quite interested in films where the frame becomes a strong dramatic structure, if you like, so it was a deliberate choice. In fact, one of the scenes I'm most proud of in Coriolanus is a single still frame of Jessica Chastain getting onto the bed with the figure of Coriolanus in the foreground."
That small moment - a pause in the frenzy - gave its characters the space to reveal themselves to one another. The Invisible Woman aims to do that in every scene, exploring the intense connection between Dickens and Ternan.
"At one point in the working on it," he says, "it became clear to me that this is the story of how Ellen Ternan became the mistress of Charles Dickens. It's not the story of her life with [him]; that's sort of where we leave her."
Casting himself as Dickens gave Fiennes the opportunity to dive into the author's work - with which he was almost entirely unfamiliar. (He's only appeared in one adaptation of the author's work, last year's Great Expectations.)
"Well, I had seen staged productions," he says. "Nicholas Nickleby [in] the famous Trevor Nunn production, and the films, and bits of BBC series. But I only read Little Dorrit, which I had liked, in fact, but I just hadn't gone to a bookshelf or a bookshop and pulled out Dickens. When I was in school, I did my English A-levels, and Dickens wasn't on the syllabus."
Fiennes threw himself into Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, and came out with that sense of Dickens's creative fury we were talking about - and how the author chased away the darkness with a fervour that proved irresistible to Ternan even as it endangered her social standing.
"People talked about his energy when he was in the room, his aliveness," he says. "I think there's a boyishness in Dickens which is there alongside. Dickens is the sort of man who goes, ‘This is this, we're gonna do that.' He just makes sure it happens, and then... not much introspection, not much self-awareness."