By Steve Fisher
WHEN YOU HEAR the title of Ralph
Fiennes’ most recent film, The Invisible
Woman, you might think it is science fiction.
In this case, invisibility refers to something
else. The real-life titular woman is Ellen
“Nelly” Ternan, a young actress who was
Charles Dickens’ mistress until his death and
was forced to live her life in the shadows so
that his secret would not be revealed, thus
making her somewhat invisible to the world.
For Ralph Fiennes (pronounced “Rafe
Fines”), who directed the film and stars as
Dickens, his attachment to the film was somewhat of a surprise.
“[Dickens has] never been an area of inter-
est,” he tells The Connection in a phone inter-
view. “And [the] Victorian era never interested
me that much, generally. I love history, but
somehow I haven’t been that intrigued by mid-
Victorian England literature.”
But after reading Abi Morgan’s screen-
play, and then the book, The Invisible Woman
by Claire Tomalin, upon which it was based,
Fiennes was hooked.
“This woman’s story really fascinated
me,” he says. “The essential bit of it that
spoke to me on an emotional level was
what’s it like to carry inside of you some his-
tory of a past love, a past intimacy with
someone. And that person’s left your life.
They’ve either left or gone or died, and how
you have closure with it.”
That attracted Fiennes as a director, yet
his actor side found more.
“Along with that came Claire’s description of Dickens and his sort of contradictory, impulsive nature, energy, vitality and
trouble of domestic life,” Fiennes explains.
“His sort of cruelty and domineering nature.
All those things made him a very compelling figure as well.
“He had, as a young man, always wanted
to be an actor,” Fiennes adds. “And I think
the story is on the day of an audition he had
a terrible cold or flu and never went. And
never tried to go back. So, that moment
passed him by. But he loved the theater and
put on these amateur productions, and appar-
ently he was a very good actor. And he pro-
duced and directed stuff.”
Dickens was 45, and married with 10
children, when he met Ternan, then an
18-year-old aspiring actress.
“For a long time there was a massive sort
of wall of secrecy,” Fiennes relates. “Dickens
was protective of the fact that he had her as a
mistress. After his death there were some
rumors that came out and things emerged
and even a couple of the children talked to
early biographers. But I think the Dickens
family were very protective of it, and the
reputation of Dickens is the clean, the honorable family man. There was a massive sort of
Ralph Fiennes directs and stars
in The Invisible Woman
p.r. campaign to keep that image intact. But I
think Claire Tomalin’s book was the first one
to really, really look at the character of Nelly,
who was Ellen Ternan.”
Before he took on the role of Dickens,
Fiennes cast British film and theater actress
Felicity Jones as Ternan, saying, “I wanted
someone who had great interior resources.
Felicity’s great gift is she’s very intelligent,
and the camera reads a sense of other things
happening inside her.”
As for directing himself, Fiennes the actor
sometimes conflicted with Fiennes the director.
“The actor wants to have another take.
They feel they can do it better,” he says. “And
the director has to say, ‘No, we’ve got it.
Move on.’ My brain was short-circuiting with
the dilemma of do I give myself another take
or should I move on. Have we got it or is this
just my neurosis? That’s when you need good
people at your side to say, ‘Come on, you’ve
got it, move on.’ ”
A moment later, Fiennes adds, “I don’t
think I’m going to try and do it again.” C
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Click or scan here to watch
a scene from The Invisible
Woman. (See page 5 for
The Costco Connection
The Invisible Woman is available in Blu-ray/
DVD combo at all Costco warehouses.
arts & entertainment
Above left: Ralph Fiennes as Charles
Dickens. Above: Felicity Jones as Nelly
Ternan accompanies Dickens on a stroll.