Movie Interviews
3:51 pm
Sat December 21, 2013

'The Invisible Woman': Charles Dickens' Muse And Mistress

Originally published on Sat December 21, 2013 8:28 pm

Charles Dickens was a celebrity of the Victorian era. His books and plays continue to be celebrated around the world, particularly around Christmas. The new film, The Invisible Woman, focuses on a lesser-known part of his life — his relationship with a young woman named Nelly Ternan.

Felicity Jones plays the young mistress and muse, and Ralph Fiennes, who also directed the film, plays Dickens.

"He was extremely successful. He was one of the great sort of celebrities of his day, and he was a sort of forerunner of today's mad cult of celebrity possibly," Fiennes tells host Arun Rath. "He was ferociously protective of his reputation, and Nelly Turnan was the secret."

The film is based on biographer Claire Tomalin's 1990 book, The Invisible Woman.

"I think people don't know much about Dickens' life unless they have decided specifically to read a biography, and so they have this perception of him as the sort of upstanding Victorian father figure," says Fiennes.

Jones and Fiennes discuss the process of getting into the mind of their characters and how their relationship with the writer evolved during the film.


Interview Highlights

On the contrast between Dickens and Ternan

Fiennes: I get a sense of a man of ferocious energy and a furious imagination, an unstoppable imagination. And at the time we meet him in the story of this film, he's 45 years old, he's a father of nine children, he's at the height of his fame and into his life walks this woman. I think in his private life, his marriage was frustrating to him, and one other extreme we see in the film is the cruel and possibly brutal way in which he exits his marriage.

Jones: He's a man who uses words all the time, obsessed with words, obsessed with understanding the world through literature, through words. And Nelly is very careful when she speaks. You know, she chooses her words carefully. And it was quite a challenge playing a character where so much has to be shown nonverbally.

On Jones' interest in Dickens before the film

Jones: In England, Dickens is so ubiquitous, so, you know, you're surrounded by him from a really young age. But I have to say I wasn't a huge fan before. So it was only since being involved in the film that I started to really investigate him and appreciate him. And have since become completely obsessed with Great Expectations, as was Nelly, and really appreciated his incredible writing.

On what they've taken away from the film

Fiennes: I feel very still connected. Sometimes you do a film and you just sort of move on from it. I get a sense of an extraordinary man with an amazing imagination and potency, with many, many flaws, but the sense of a man that never wasted a second of his life. And I find that kind of very inspiring.

Jones: I feel like Nelly: I have a bit of a love-hate relationship for Dickens. He was this extraordinary genius. But at the same time, I think he was deeply flawed and could be a very cruel man. So I find my feelings toward him constantly fluctuating between those extremes.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: It's the time of year for a wholesome Christmas fare, and it doesn't get more wholesome than "A Christmas Carol" - Scrooge getting in the spirit, Tiny Tim saying, God bless us, everyone. And Charles Dickens, the celebrated author of the story, happily played the part of the proper Victorian gentleman, exactly the sort of moral individual you'd expect to write such a beautiful story. But Dickens had another side.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE INVISIBLE WOMAN")

RALPH FIENNES: (as Charles Dickens) Tell me a secret.

FELICITY JONES: (as Ellen Ternan) What kind of secret?

FIENNES: (as Charles Dickens) Anything.

RATH: That's Ralph Fiennes as Dickens and Felicity Jones as Ellen Ternan, his secret lover.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE INVISIBLE WOMAN")

JONES: (as Ellen Ternan) My middle name is Lawless. Now your turn.

RATH: Dickens and Ternan had a 13-year adulterous affair, inspiring the title of the new film, "The Invisible Woman."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE INVISIBLE WOMAN)

FIENNES: (as Charles Dickens) Ellen Lawless Ternan, that is my secret.

RATH: I had a chance to speak with Felicity Jones and Ralph Fiennes, who also directs the film.

FIENNES: I think people don't know much about Dickens' life, unless they have decided specifically to read a biography. Then - so they have this perception of him as the upstanding sort of Victorian father figure.

RATH: Which is extraordinary, because it's hard to think of a more public life.

FIENNES: Yeah. I mean, he was extremely successful. He was one of the great sort of celebrities of his day, and he was sort of a forerunner of today's mad culture of celebrity, possibly. But, you know, he was ferociously protective of his reputation. And Nelly Ternan was the secret.

RATH: Felicity, it must have been difficult approaching your character who has to hold her own alongside this monumental figure. What was that like?

JONES: She's - and that's why it's such an interesting contrast. He's a man who uses words all the time, obsessed with words, obsessed with understanding the world through literature, through words. And Nelly is very careful when she speaks. You know, she chooses her words carefully. And it was quite a challenge playing a character where so much has to be shown nonverbally.

RATH: Ralph, I've heard you say you're fascinated by the psychology of Dickens. What do you mean?

FIENNES: Well, I get a sense of a man of ferocious energy and a furious imagination, an unstoppable imagination. And at the time we meet him in the story of this film, he's 45 years old, he's the father of nine children, he's the height of his fame and into his life walks this woman. I think in his private life, I think his marriage was frustrating to him. But he's a man of extremes. And we see - one other extreme we see in the film is the cruel and possibly brutal in which he exits his marriage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE INVISIBLE WOMAN")

JONES: (as Ellen Ternan) She is the mother of your children. How could you be so cruel to her?

FIENNES: (as Charles Dickens) And for that, I shall always be grateful. But I do not love her. She comprehends nothing. She sees nothing. I thought if she saw you then she would understand that I have nothing with her.

He's fallen in love, and so he's in a kind of upside down turmoil.

RATH: There's a wonderful scene - I remember reading about how - reading from Charles Dickens was almost like going to a rock concert at that time. And there's a scene where you recreate one of those readings. How did you approach that?

FIENNES: Well, citing on what he was going to read. I mean, he didn't read from all of his books. So I chose - there's this great storm scene, if you like, towards the end of "David Copperfield."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE INVISIBLE WOMAN")

FIENNES: (as Charles Dickens) Ham watched the sea, standing alone, until there was a great retiring way. He seemed to leap up into it with a mighty bound.

And we researched. It's very well documented that he's - he had behind him red screens. He had a specially designed little table that was the height that was comfortable for him to lean his elbow on. So we absolutely recreated it to its original design. There's a great assembly hall in a school called Harrow just outside London. And then we just filled it with as many people as we could, and asked them all to listen rapt as if they couldn't move a muscle, that the reading was so compelling. He read, you know, in a very convincing and magnetic way and...

JONES: He desperately wanted to be an actor himself. So any opportunity to be onstage, he just took wholeheartedly.

RATH: Well, another aspect of him that I think is not as widely known that really the film digs into is his attraction to the theater.

FIENNES: He wanted to be an actor as a young man, and then there was the day of an audition that he had. He got very ill and sick and never went and then never decided to try again.

RATH: What was the relationship for both of you like with Dickens the writer before you approached his project?

JONES: I - I mean, in England, Dickens is so ubiquitous. So, you know, you are surrounded by him from a really young age. But I didn't - I have to say I wasn't a huge fan before. So it was only since being involved in the film that I started to really investigate him and appreciate him and have since become completely obsessed with "Great Expectations," as was Nelly, and really appreciated his incredible writing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE INVISIBLE WOMAN")

FIENNES: (as Charles Dickens) Wilkie thinks I should change the ending.

JONES: (as Ellen Ternan) No. You must not. To bring Estella and Pip together at the end but not to unite them...

FIENNES: (as Charles Dickens) She is changed. That is enough.

JONES: (as Ellen Ternan) Yes, it is a sad ending. But Estella finds her heart. She finds an understanding at last.

FIENNES: (as Charles Dickens) Yes, exactly. Exactly.

RATH: Ralph, you direct this film as well - and it's something that ever since I saw my first Woody Allen film I've wondered how people direct while they're acting - but especially with these physical scenes, that I have a hard time imagining how you're figuring out your camera angles and things like that when you're right there in the film acting your heart out.

FIENNES: In a way, it's hard and it's straightforward. The hardest thing is just the mental adjustment of having had the technical discussion about a camera position that's going to be here and we're standing there and the light's there, then to go: OK, now, I'm going to go and be Dickens.

RATH: And, Felicity, I know he's in the room right now, but what was that like working with him as a director who...

FIENNES: I'm blocking my ears.

JONES: I think because Ralph was acting and directing, it actually becomes collaborative. We'd spend vast amounts of time discussing the character in depth. I would say Ralph is always extremely honest. He has no desire to kind of overly flatter you if he doesn't feel the need to. So I trusted him immediately and felt very comfortable.

RATH: The two of you played father and daughter in a previous film, right?

JONES: Yes.

RATH: It's a bit weird?

JONES: It's very Freudian...

FIENNES: It is.

(LAUGHTER)

JONES: ...to go from father and daughter to lovers.

FIENNES: It's just a job. Come on.

JONES: What?

FIENNES: It's just a job.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: What have you both taken away from this film in terms of what you think about Charles Dickens?

FIENNES: Oh, wow. I feel very still connected. Sometimes you do a film and you sort of move on from it. I get a sense of an extraordinary man of amazing imagination and potency with many, many flaws. But the sense of a man that never wasted a second of his life, and I find that kind of very inspiring.

JONES: I feel like Nelly. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship for Dickens. He was this extraordinary genius. But at the same time, I think he was deeply flawed and could be a very cruel man. So I find my feelings towards him are constantly fluctuating between those two extremes.

RATH: Felicity Jones plays Ellen Ternan in the film "Invisible Woman" which opens Christmas Day. Ralph Fiennes directed and also plays Charles Dickens. Thank you both for coming in.

FIENNES: Thank you.

JONES: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.