Ralph Fiennes and his costar, Joanna Scanlan, appeared for a press conference at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center on Oct. 9, 2013 following a screening of Fiennes’ new film, “The Invisible Woman.” He stars as Charles Dickens and also directs the movie, while Scanlan plays Dickens’ long-suffering wife.
The story focuses on Dickens’ separation from his wife and love affair with a much younger woman named Nelly Ternan, played by the always-interesting-to-watch Felicity Jones. The film is based on Claire Tomalin’s book of the same name.
Fiennes plays Dickens as a very charismatic character who is at the center of the lives of those around him, a man who was a star of his time and who loved the adulation he received.
Much attention to detail is paid to the time period, from the dress and design to the many cultural restrictions that people had to live within. The film is a little slow-moving but compelling, largely because of the way Fiennes framed the shots, which gives us a glimpse into the characters’ feelings, even as they strive to maintain self-control and decorum.
Below are some of the highlights from the press conference.
Fiennes on questioning whether he should both direct and act in the film:
I initially said “No, I don’t think I could.” But then in the process of working on the screenplay with Abi Morgan, I got to rehearse the scenes. I got to speak out loud in my kitchen – with Abi typing away – everybody’s lines. I became, I suppose, enamored of the role, of Dickens, in the process.
Scanlan on playing Dickens’ wife, Catherine:
Actually, it was a dual experience for me in the sense that as an actress, it was thrilling to work with Ralph as both director and actor … but at the same time, it was quite difficult because I was in her position. And everybody else was at the party, and I did feel lonely and left out and pushed to one side.
Fiennes on his design team:
We both [production designer Maria Djurkovic] agreed that we wanted to embrace as accurately as possible that specific time. I didn’t want, nor did she, to give any kind of spin or alternative version of this period. It’s a fascinating period of design and everything – some of it very ugly, I think. But the Victorians had this burgeoning sense of dark wood and amazing wallpapers that were being made and printed, incredible patterning and colors, and I wanted Maria to embrace that. And she loved that. She and the set designer, Tat [Tatiana Mcdonald], were fantastic.
Fiennes on costume designer Michael O’Connor:
The wardrobe room where he was making was an amazing place to go because he found many original garments which he copied. In fact, I even get to wear one original Victorian waistcoat in the post-theater party scene in Manchester. It’s a beautiful black waistcoat embroidered with tiny little grapes and vines on the lapel. That sort of detail was a turn-on to me and to Michael.
Fiennes on sometimes shooting characters from the back:
Backs of people’s heads and bodies are a mystery, so you want to know what’s around the corner of that person. And it’s something I like. When Catherine [Dickens] visits the Ternans’ home, I love the shot of the back of her bonnet. What is this thing? And the bonnet is a thing you have to embrace if you’re doing this period. It’s a piece of feminine attire that’s protection, framing. It frames the face. It has a protective armor-like quality in a way. So, I think there’s a dramatic potential in what is the face going to show when I see it. And I like watching people while they’re coming towards or going away….
What a person is facing I think also tells a story. We’re behind them and what we imagine they’re seeing.
Fiennes on shooting scenes on the beach:
When you’re walking on a beach, you confront your miniscule-ness, and you also confront your own essential humanness in the vastness of the wind and the rain and the sea – these things that can just sweep you away. Maybe that’s quite personal to me, but I think you confront things on a beach when you walk.
Fiennes on using Martin Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence” as a model or inspiration for “The Invisible Woman”:
It’s one of the films I saw because I think that he embraces the period detail and the manners and the codes and behaviors in the film. I think some people can shy away from that. I mean, I’ve actually been in a film where the director was reluctant to embrace the details…. I think it’s sort of sexy and dangerous what’s going on underneath [the manners]. And he definitely in that film, that contradiction, he really embraces it.
Fiennes on directing Scanlan in a particular scene:
When I met Jo, and she very generously agreed to read, within seconds, the scene that I had believed to be a good scene was, in her hands, a great scene. The way she – you – brilliantly found the dignity in it. We were married then. [laughter]
Fiennes on Dickens’ fame:
The first thing to say is that it’s really important for the audience who see the film [to know] what a huge star Dickens was…. I think he loved an audience, not only his theater audience he read to but also his readership. They were very important to him…. He wanted to be an actor at one point, and then he became a writer. But then he discovered that he could read his works, and it was a huge success. In fact, he made two trips to America in his life, and the second trip made shortly before his death, he came here to New York and it was a sellout. He was an ill man, and his body was breaking down. But I think he needed this connection to the public.
Scanlan on what she would ask Dickens if he were alive today:
I’d want to know exactly who he’s seeing and when he’s seeing her. [laughter]
Fiennes on what he would ask Dickens if the author were alive today:
I would be very curious to ask him whether Nelly is the model for any of the heroines in the books he wrote when we know he was seeing her, particularly “Great Expectations” and “Our Mutual Friend.” I would love to impertinently ask him, “Is there any truth in this?”