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

Read more Entertainment stories from the Miami Herald

  • Coming to town

    Spend the night with Joan Collins

    Cue the Dynasty music and break out the shoulder pads — Joan Collins is coming to town Friday night with her one-woman show. But don’t expect the Hollywood legend, 80, to focus on her time as bitchy Alexis Carrington Colby on the famed ’80s night soap opera. Collins has quite the acting pedigree, having debuted on the London stage at the age of 9 before she made it on the big screen in such 1950s movies as The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing and Rally Round the Flag Boys. Still quick as a whip, the glamorous as all get-out Brit will tell you all about her illustrious career and more during One Night with Joan at Seminole Casino Coconut Creek.

  •  
FILE - This July 6, 2013 file photo shows Bollywood actors Sridevi and Prabhu Deva, left in yellow, performing during the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) awards in Macau. The IIFA is holding its annual awards ceremony in Tampa this week. The city is an unusual choice for the awards extravaganza, but tourism officials hope it will be an economic boon to Tampa, which has hosted four Super Bowls and the Republican National Convention.

    Indian film awards arrive in Tampa, Fla., but why?

    The so-called Bollywood Oscars have been held in Macau, Singapore, London — and now, Tampa?

  •  
 <span class="cutline_leadin">IN THE KITCHEN:</span> Myles Chefetz does a tasting in the kitchen at Prime Fish with chef Todd Zimmer, April 14, 2014. Chefetz also owns Prime 112, Prime Italian, Big Pink and the upcoming Prime Private. Chefetz is one of the most successful restaurateurs in Miami.

    RESTAURANTS

    Myles Chefetz, Michael Schwartz dominate Miami’s fine-dining scene

    Myles Chefetz and Michael Schwartz, who were once business partners, each went their own way — Chefetz to South Beach, Schwartz to the Design District. They now dominate Miami’s fine-dining scene.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category