Secrets are at the heart of Ralph Fiennes’s new film, The Invisible Woman, which examines the life of Charles Dickens, and his young mistress, Ellen ‘Nelly’ Ternan. As the film has Dickens say, in a quote from A Tale of Two Cities, ‘Every human creature is a profound secret to every other.’
With his seemingly glorious family life, over-spilling with dogs and children, Dickens was a hero of prosperous Victorian domesticity — rich, powerful and perhaps the most celebrated figure of the age. When he met Ternan, he was 45 and she was 17, a young actress cast in one of his plays. To avert scandal, Dickens in 1858 separated from his wife, publicly blaming the rift on the long–suffering Catherine, from whose care he was able to remove nine of his children. He dismissed whispers of the affair as slander and moved Nelly to France. Later, she lived in a house near his one of his homes. Together they went by the names of Mr and Mrs -Tringham and the relationship continued until his death in 1870.
The Invisible Woman is the second film Fiennes has directed. His first was the brutal, Balkan-set Coriolanus, released in 2011. This new film is a delicate, morally complex work about the web which Dickens weaves around the object of his desire. Fiennes’s Dickens is a man given to erotic and imaginative obsession, who casts a kind of addictive magic around him. The 30-year-old British actress Felicity Jones, who plays Nelly, is captivating as the 17-year-old ingenue, and profoundly moving as a grown woman.
I meet Fiennes after a photo shoot in Chalk Farm. Anthony Minghella, who cast him in The English Patient, described him as ‘profoundly English’, but despite the beautiful manners and reticent air, the terms in which he discusses his work are far from repressed. His summary of what went on between Dickens and Nelly is strikingly simple: they met, and ‘he had to have her’.
Was it sexual or a meeting of souls, I wonder. ‘I think it’s a bit of both … I think he had had this idea of the ideal perfect woman and he projected this ideal on to Nelly when he met her. He pursued Nelly and initially she was, well, wait, wait, wait and I think that’s where Estella comes from … I think it’s Nellie going “I’m not going to give you myself, I’m not going to give in.”’
The premise of the film is that Great Expectations, first pubished in 1860 was the direct result of all of this private torment. ‘When Nelly came into his life it was like someone had opened a door and he just went out, “I have to go, this is it” — sometimes in relationships people have to get out and they leave a broken heart behind.’
The film seems to question whether the price for his creative output is too high, and I put that to Fiennes. He thinks about it for a long time, with the air of one sitting an exam on the human condition. ‘It’s impossible to answer that question… There are so many men, maybe more than women, who leave a trail of havoc as they pursue their thing. I don’t know. I don’t know. That’s what we wrestle with I guess.
‘People go for T.S. Eliot, people go for Picasso, but human life is messy, people do messy things. Men and women both are capable of acts of emotional cruelty, violence or vertiginous steps out of or into stuff, and we don’t quite know why we do it. With artists, I suppose, there is some fire that drives them and often it burns other people.’
This spring Fiennes, will also be seen giving full rein to his lighter side in Wes Anderson’s fin-de-siècle farce The Grand Budapest Hotel. However, if there is a preoccupation in his work, both on screen and stage, it is with moments of moral crisis. You think of the love triangles of The English Patient (1996) or The End of the Affair (1999), or the deceptions in Quiz Show (1994). Dickens, risking his reputation for a romantic obsession, joins this gallery of characters in moral limbo.
‘My sister Sophie said something funny the other day,’ says Fiennes. ‘She has a three-and-a-half-year-old boy, and she said, “I think all these great men are just like five-year-olds,” because she is witnessing her young child and all his hunger for life and curiosity, he wants this and he wants that and he wants what he wants. He doesn’t understand that there might be something called negotiation.’
It was originally Nelly’s story that made him want to make this film: ‘The idea,’ he has said, that ‘we can all live with the past and have lives we don’t ever talk about.’ Abi Morgan’s script elaborates on the possibility that Nelly gave birth to a baby that died. As Claire Tomalin wrote in her 1990 account of Ternan, on which the screenplay is based, ‘To give birth, to cherish for a few months perhaps, and then to lose a baby is a terrible thing. It becomes more terrible if the child is not to be acknowledged and can be remembered only as a dreamlike guilty secret: first shame, then love, then grief.’
In fact, those three states aptly describe Nelly as we see her during the film. When she later marries, after Dickens’s death, her early life is seen to become what Fiennes terms a kind of ‘wound’ — a guilty secret. Dickens lives on only in the books on her shelves: a source of shame, love and grief. Jones’s performance is superb and could well see her nominated as Best Actress in the Academy Awards.
For all Fiennes’s charm, interviews are plainly something of an ordeal for him, and he jokes about the fact that I’ve been given an hour for this torment, at one point wriggling in his seat and kicking his legs with the air of a kid waiting to be let out of detention.
His life changed with his bloodchilling performance as Nazi Commandant Amon Goethe in Schindler’s List which in 1993 earned him an Oscar nomination. ‘Your career takes off, and with that comes other stuff called the curiosity about who you are,’ he recalls. It was at just this time that his mother, the novelist Jennifer Lash, to whom he was very close, died of breast cancer.
In 1995, when he was 32, Fiennes fell in love with Francesca Annis, then 50, while playing Hamlet to her Gertrude; at the time he was married to the actress Alex Kingston. The age difference and the good looks of the three protagonists had the newspapers in a frenzy. Now, 17 years on, Fiennes’s own private life, as ever, is not up for discussion. The question of invasion of privacy is enough for him to put his head in his hands.
‘God, it’s so difficult. I don’t know what it is about privacy. I mean look at these trials … I think, having been on the receiving end of what I felt invasive shit from the media, I feel, as a human — you feel stop, this is not your fucking business. Newspapers sell because people on the street buy them because they want to read about who slept with who and who took drugs and who got drunk …People want to go “Ha, ha, ha, look at that politician, look at that actor, look at that movie star.”’
He seems to have very little interest in what the law can or can’t do; for him, the problem is the culture of prurience. ‘It’s a valid debate but in the end, OK, people’s vanity, sense of pride, sense of privacy is wounded, unpleasant stuff happens, we read about it, but there are bigger, more important, more painful issues going on outside of the lives of a few actors and football stars or whatever. So it’s important to have the debate, but there’s a point where you want to go, okay …we can move on because life goes on and, as they say, this too will pass.’
Dickens at least did not have to deal with this kind of intrusion. ‘No one wanted scandal, they wanted the appearance of decency,’ says Fiennes of the Victorians. The willingness with which the public accepted the cosy edited version of Dickens’s life continued for decades. Having been invisible, Dickens’s ‘secret’, in their time together, Ternan kept her counsel after his death to the extent that she almost disappeared from the record entirely.
‘Now I feel it is people going, “We want to know the secret, we’re going to get in, we’re going to put in wires, we’re going to listen and hack into your phone and do whatever stuff”, and that’s the difference I think.’
In the end, it all comes back to secrets. ‘Would we rather not have any of these great paintings and books and our Dostoevskys and Tolstoys and Caravaggios and Michelangelos — and even Shakespeare I guess — would we rather they all behaved impeccably in their private lives and we didn’t have any of these?’
‘It’s fascinating to me why we need stories. What is it? Something in us needs to hear these stories or to watch them.’ And perhaps to perform them and to tell them too. Watch a Fiennes performance, or flip through a scandal sheet? I know which one I’d choose.
The Invisible Woman is released on 7 February 2014 and The Grand Budapest Hotel on 28 February 2014.