The movie scene

Ralph Fiennes brings Charles Dickens and his mistress to the screen in ‘The Invisible Woman’

Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images

“Dickens is an institution,” says Ralph Fiennes, noting how little most people really know about cultural touchstones they take as familiar. “A bit like people know Shakespeare through Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, that’s it, really. After that they have to be actually interested in English or in theater. So Dickens — Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Tale of Two Cities, Christmas Carol. And then after that it’s really the serious readers. Certainly, his life, people don’t know much about unless you bother to read a biography.”

Soft-spoken, polite, engaging, the handsome, pleasant Tony winner and multiple Oscar nominee is known for playing some of the screen’s more memorable villains — in Red Dragon, In Bruges, Voldemort in the Harry Potter series, and the cold-blooded Nazi Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List. When he talks about directing and starring in a story about England’s most-celebrated novelist, however, one sees the draw that dark complexity can hold for him.

“The majority of people think, ‘Charles Dickens, jolly Victorian man. Tells a sentimental and nice story.’ Dickens has a violence to his imagination, to his world,” he says. “There are shadow worlds to Dickens that I’m new to, that I love. A world of uncertainties and moral ambivalence and ethical disturbance and people who are trying to be good but fail, people who are not at all good but on the surface full of charm and are seductive, but underneath are quite corrupt. Dickens sees the human comedy in everything.”

Fiennes explores Dickens’ own multifaceted “human comedy” in The Invisible Woman, which opens Friday in South Florida. Based on Claire Tomalin’s book, the film examines the life of Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), an actress who was Dickens’ mistress, and their story reveals sides of the author sure to surprise U.S. audiences.

“I felt she really understood the subtext,” says Fiennes, who also plays Dickens. “A lot of this is the subtext. This gradual emotional story — it cooks gradually — I needed someone who, when the camera’s on, we would feel she’s crackling inside with all kinds of awarenesses. I needed someone, who when they react, that carries a lot of interior weight. ‘Has she noticed him? How’s she going to respond to him?’ She has this gift, when the camera’s on her, I feel I want to know what she’s not saying.”

Fiennes’ previous directorial effort was a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, a bloody, war tale shot with kinetic immediacy by Paul Greengrass’ cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd. Invisible Woman is quite a different affair, so to speak, with its long, stationary takes.

“I wanted to find something with more stillness and more certainty; you plant the camera and watch someone,” he says. “I like the films by the Japanese director (Yasujirô) Ozu, who never moves the camera. He relies on the composition and the strength of the shots, and the performances and the story he’s telling. There’s a real sense of sustained commitment to how it watches.

“There’s one shot of Dickens and Nelly standing in a room after they’ve had an argument on the steps. I just wanted to feel the atmosphere when something’s happened between two people which is to do with attraction or the difficulty of understanding the attraction. We’ve all been in the situation where it’s awkward with the person you like, and how’s it going to play out? Whatever it is, I just know I’ve been there and there’s silence. I said to (cinematographer Rob Hardy), ‘I want to have the courage to hold this.’ If (the actors) are feeling it, and it’s mostly our backs, too, (the audience) will feel it.”

Fiennes had intended to only direct after having taken on helmer and star mantles for Coriolanus. As he researched his subject, however, he found himself more open to playing the part.

“Dickens’ father was heavily in debt and bankrupt,” he says. “Dickens was sent to work in a blacking factory. He felt very humiliated by this and carried the sense of stigma all his life. He didn’t talk about it, but I think this really affected him.”

He was fascinated by Dickens’ contradictions: The committed crusader for the poor, a “man of physical vigor and social vitality” who was also “very quick to feel slighted or take grievance if he was crossed or you disagreed with him. So he could turn and be quite cruel and angry. And a controlling father. You see that in the race with the children. Although we see him leaving his wife in a very cruel way, it was important that the audience get a sense of the totality of him.”

Enthusiastically recommending Bleak House for further reading, he says, “I was pretty ignorant about Dickens. I’m happy I’ve come to it in my middle years and didn’t have to learn it at school; I have no baggage. It’s my own current excitement about reading the rest of his books.”

Michael Ordoña

San Francisco Chronicle

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