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Ralph Fiennes behind the camera: uncovering the secret memories of love

Ralph Fiennes

Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail

There is a moment just about midway into The Invisible Woman when a crowd of respectable men realize that the estimable Charles Dickens is in their midst. All but abandoning the decorum of the Victorian era, they swarm the writer to shake his hand, filling the screen with a sea of top hats and outstretched arms.

It makes for a striking image – one that falls somewhere between a Renoir painting and a George Clooney spotting – and one that portrays the level of fame Dickens endured in the prime of his career.

It was exactly during this time, too, that he was navigating a private relationship with Ellen "Nelly" Ternan, the film's titular (albeit unnamed) woman, played in the film by Felicity Jones.

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For Ralph Fiennes, who directed the film in addition to embodying Dickens's outsized persona, the story carried several compelling themes.

"All these things about love remembered; the marks of intimacy in you or on you that, later on, you still have to live with; celebrity, fame; the colossal, phenomenon of Dickens as a figure, as a man – you know, sucking the air out of a room but full of contradictory emotions; and this young girl who has to weather this force of man," he explains with the delivery of soliloquy.

Sitting in a nondescript hotel room, working his way through an afternoon of interviews on the Saturday of the Toronto International Film Festival, Fiennes is no longer sporting Dickens's curly hair and beard. At 51, and having played an impressive spectrum of charmers and villains, his smoulder has settled, yet a frisky spark remains.

It is a specific variety of charm that he applies to Dickens so that the audience can grasp why Ternan, just barely 18 and already considered a gifted actress, might have fallen for a married father of 10.

As director, Fiennes could determine the tone; while the couples' scenes together are relatively chaste, their intimacy goes deep.

"I wanted to see if I could tell a story of how people fall in love or come to it. And I think it is in increments" he says. "You learn about someone and they reveal things … And I think that's more believable to me than the eyes lock. I can't buy that so much."

The scandal of Dickens's divorce was less consequential than how the couple kept a lower profile in its wake. Moreover, the film is set years later, once Dickens has died and Ternan has moved on.

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"For me, the important factor was the retrospection and memory – it's about the memory of love," he says, noting that screenwriter Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady) went through several variations of the script. "It's about a series of choices a woman makes or was forced to make or comes to terms with," he adds.

As prolific as Dickens was, he never wrote directly about Nelly. But it's worth noting that the relationship had fully developed by the time that Dickens was deep into Great Expectations. "I think there's legitimate grounds to say, how much is Estella a bit of Nelly or not?" says Fiennes. "I don't think she is literally; but you know, she might be the springboard for Estella's coldness and aloofness. Maybe Dickens felt the coldness or maybe it was actually Nelly who said, I need someone to protect me."

At one point in the film, Dickens shares with Nelly one of the novel's final moments of Pip and Estella. "It is one of the most amazing declarations of love," says Fiennes. "And so I felt no shame at all about it existing in another film in another context."

Incidentally, while working on The Invisible Woman's screenplay with Morgan, Fiennes played Magwitch in the latest film adaptation, directed by Mike Newell. "They seemed quite separate things," he says, noting that the role did not ultimately bring him new insight on Dickens.

What makes for even better trivia is that Kristin Scott Thomas plays Nelly's protective mother. No doubt you'll remember she co-starred with Fiennes in The English Patient as his lover.

"Kristin is a very smart, wise woman. She's very generous. And she said, 'I want to be in your next film,'" he recalls. "Initially, she had strong views on the scenes and I tried to make her have an important dramatic function. And she was very sweet and true to her word and was wonderful to work with.

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Then, with a laugh, he continues, "She took my notes and sometimes fought back!"

Now that Fiennes has directed two films in which he has also starred (Coriolanus in 2011), he says he is tempted to find a project that is entirely off-screen. "The days when I wasn't playing Dickens were great – just to only have to worry about the other actors and to not have to look at myself on playback and deal with all the insecurities of looking at yourself – all stuff that makes it possibly inefficient," he says.

In the meantime, he says that The Invisible Woman was an important story to tell not just because we now have a better understanding of Dickens outside his work. "She is given the space to articulate what is going on. So in a way, she's allowing herself to become visible to herself. She's kept stuff hidden and locked," says Fiennes.

And yet "the intention to preserve a reputation and protect oneself from the easy judgment" as he describes it, represents a level of dignity we still attempt to maintain today. Put another way, some things need not be so visible.

"Your life – the things that are intimate in your life – you do protect," Fiennes insists, his gaze locked and his voice emphatic. "Even if things have changed today and [we] have the Internet, there's still the value of what two people hold between them and that's a secret, sacred thing."

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