TORONTO — It’s rather hard to believe, but Ralph Fiennes — classically trained actor, noted Shakespearean interpreter and all-around regal English gentleman — was mostly ignorant to one of his country’s most famous writers.
“I was a philistine about (Charles) Dickens,” said the gently soft-spoken 51-year-old during last September’s Toronto International Film Festival. “I’d read one Dickens, Little Dorrit . . . but I had no motivation to read the canon of Dickens’ work. I liked Little Dorrit, but it hadn’t given me (that feeling of) ‘Ah, I must read them all.”’
That changed when the two-time Academy Award nominee read Claire Tomalin’s book The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens.
“It took me until I was 49 or whatever when I read it, to read this story, to be interested in him,” he recalled. “And then suddenly it’s opened up for me.”
Fiennes was so taken with Tomalin’s biography he decided to direct the film adaptation The Invisible Woman, which hits select Canadian theatres on Friday.
Somewhat more reluctantly, he eventually decided to also star as Dickens in the painstakingly detailed period piece, which zeroes in on the married author’s single-minded pursuit of an admirer named Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones) and the catastrophic consequences the affair posed for the unmarried young woman in Victorian England.
Dickens met Ternan at the apex of his celebrity, when the 18-year-old was a fledgling actress in one of his theatrical productions. A father of 10 mired in an unhappy marriage, Dickens pursued the affair with a less-than-admirable disregard for the effect it could have on Ternan’s reputation and, ultimately, livelihood.
And yet Fiennes says he didn’t want the audience to arrive at moralistic conclusions about the legendary scribe’s behaviour.
“I have to say I’m weary of the easy judgment,” said the English Patient star. “There’s no question that people come to this moment in his life and they go, ‘Oh dear.’ The Dickens who was so gregarious, so generous, taking on these big charitable concerns, suddenly he meets Nelly and he cuts (his wife) Catherine out and tells the children that they can’t see their mother.
“I hope that the film shows that side of him but also I think he was capable of great tenderness and love and amazing enthusiasm for life and for the world of imagination. So I didn’t want to do a write-off job. I felt that would be too glib, I suppose.”
“It’s a constant balancing act,” he added. “But I feel we get his toughness, his determination to keep her a secret, and even his selfishness . . . . I wanted to try to give both Nelly and Dickens a rounded portrait.”
In accomplishing that with the former character, he leaned on Jones, best-known for co-starring in 2011’s Like Crazy.
And Fiennes lavished formidable praise on the 30-year-old actress.
“She’s amazing, isn’t she?” he said. “I’ve been moved so many times watching her interior life come to life, as it were. She has an amazing gift to suggest and indeed to inhabit and imagine interior life, which was constantly, constantly thrilling to be party to.”
Although Fiennes prefers to think that the film has “human themes,” he acknowledges that it’s imbued with a feminist streak.
Despite Ternan’s obvious intelligence, she lives in an age where she must find a man to provide for her — a prospect made much more difficult if she’s viewed as having been “ruined” by her dalliance with a married man.
“Women’s ability to earn money was minimal to non-existent mostly,” Fiennes said. “So the marriage and the right alliance to the man who would provide was very important.
“In Claire’s book, she talks about other relationships in theatre where men and women have relationships under the radar that were not acceptable,” he added. “So economic survival and having to keep your respect as a woman, these are all tensions that were there in the story and I hope they’re there in the film.”
The Invisible Woman opens Friday in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.