Ralph Fiennes on Charles Dickens

Acting heavyweight on his new literary biopic The Invisible Woman

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Well-known for his love of the works of Shakespeare, the actor takes on another great English writer, Charles Dickens in his latest film, in which he both stars and directs. Here, he tells Dave Calhoun about making The Invisible Woman.

As an actor, 51-year-old Ralph Fiennes is a veteran of dramas such as Schindler’s List and The English Patient, and is famous for playing bald baddie Voldemort in the Harry Potter films. Most recently he’s taken on the mantle of M in the James Bond franchise. As a director, Fiennes is a newcomer. The Invisible Woman is his second film, after Coriolanus, and tells of Charles Dickens’s relationship with Nelly Ternan, a young actress. The film is written by Abi Morgan and based on Claire Tomalin’s book, with Fiennes playing Dickens.

Charles Dickens behaves badly in your film. He leaves his wife, the mother of his ten children, for a younger woman. Did you dislike him?
‘No. I felt that I wanted to protect Dickens. Not to shy away from the fact he left his wife and the way he treated her, but to show there was also this whole vital, gregarious, socially engaged, charitably active man. His behaviour was questionable, but I wanted to suggest all of him. The trouble is, when there are films about the private lives of famous people, I get uneasy when the discussion shifts on to that and we forget why we are interested in them.’

You picked Felicity Jones to play Nelly Ternan, his lover. What qualities were you looking for?
‘Someone who could inhabit an interior life, so that when the camera is on them they’re full of feelings. Felicity is intelligent and thorough. She thinks things through deeply and has a quality where the camera is always interested in her face.’

The Invisible Woman is very restrained and composed. It’s a drama of important moments and not at all hysterical.
‘I was very keen to avoid the tropes of the period love-story melodrama, you know? I wanted to try and chart the building of a relationship and ask, how do people come together? It doesn’t always happen with a bang: you meet someone and it’s gradual.’

Which filmmakers do you admire?
‘I like films where I feel there’s a deliberateness to shots without being arch. I love the Japanese director Ozu [Tokyo Story]: I love how he’s ruthlessly static with his camera so you just focus on the person.’

You also play the lead in Wes Anderson’s new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, as a concierge in the 1930s. It’s great to see you in a comic role.
‘It’s lovely, isn’t it? It was fun to do. A thrilling part to sink my teeth into.’

How was it being directed by Wes?
‘He’s very, very precise. He’s very encouraging but insistent on exhausting a moment of speech, which I love because you feel you’ve tried everything. We often went for at least ten takes. Possibly 15, 16. Again, again, again. He’s written the script, so he has a very acute sense of what he wants in terms of tone, timing, rhythm, speed. He’d already done a moving storyboard of most of the film and recorded all the lines himself.’
The Invisible Woman is in cinemas across the UAE now.

Family tree

Unravelling the Fiennes family tree, Ralph (pronounced ‘Rafe’) Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes is not the only member of his clan to gain fame. If you think the Fiennes name sounds familiar, it certainly should be…

The brothers

Joseph Fiennes

Perhaps best known for playing Shakespeare opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, the younger Fiennes has appeared in numerous films, including Elizabeth, where he played Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, and is involved with upcoming action-adventure Hercules: The Thracian Wars, alongside Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock).

Magnus Fiennes

An accomplished composer, producer and songwriter, Magnus has worked with the likes of UK indie stars Morcheeba, Shakira, Tom Jones, Lenny Kravitz, the Spice Girls and Jarvis Cocker’s Pulp, as well as composing the scores for films and numerous television series.

The sisters

Martha Fiennes

An award-winning director, Martha helmed 2005’s Chromophobia, which saw brothers Ralph star in and Magnus compose the score for, while the ensemble cast also featured Penélope Cruz, Kristin Scott Thomas, Rhys Ifans, Ian Holm and Damian Lewis.

Sophie Fiennes

Also a director and producer, Sophie has worked on a number of documentary and art-house films, including Hoover Street Revival and Show and Tell.

The cousin

Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Third cousin of the Fiennes siblings, Sir Ranulph is a famed British writer, adventurer and holder of several endurance records. Widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest living explorers, having led more than 30 expeditions (he even had his honeymoon with his second wife at Everest Base Camp), Ranulph at one time during his army days fought for the Sultan of Oman.

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