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If you're a person alive in this age, Ralph Fiennes has at some point probably made you hate him. As the Nazi Amon Goeth in 1993's Schindler's List, Fiennes embodied one of history's great evils, somehow making being utterly detestable compelling. In Martin McDonagh's riotous, under-regarded In Bruges, Fiennes spat the vilest, most hilarious profanities as a hit man's boss out to right his subordinate's cock-ups. And in film after film of that Boy Wizard Meets Esteemed British Thespians series, he starred as an avatar of wickedness so wicked he couldn't be named — so we'll not get into that here.
Now, though, cinema's consummate villain wants you to know that the bloke he's playing only seems like a heavy.
"I like it when people say they don't know what to make of him, because that means he doesn't seem like a complete shit," Fiennes says.
That not-a-shit, of course, is Charles Dickens himself, the man who pretty much invented the modern ideas of Christmas and childhood. The Invisible Woman, which Fiennes also directed and helped develop, is based on the book of the same title by Claire Tomalin, whose research laid bare a Victorian scandal that admirers of the great man have often preferred to overlook: the time Dickens left his tireless wife and heap of children in order to set up house with Nelly Ternan (played by Felicity Jones), a much younger woman whose reputation, afterward, never quite recovered.
"It's a really interesting time to get one's head around, before the great flexibility that we have today, where people get divorced three times before they're 40," says the actor and director, who splits his time between New York and London. "Whatever taboos a society shares, people are still falling in love and lusting for each other."
The film is alive with love and lust. But also longing and disquiet, that curious feeling of being the normal person in the life of someone extraordinary. It's excellent, touched with that lived-in, slightly shabby feel of life as it's lived that too many period pieces lack. The interiors are cramped and chilly; lights are dim and flickering; hair often looks a touch greasy. This is far from the chipperness of contemporary Dickensiana — that plummy holiday pudding thick with virginal naïfs, caroling orphans, and triumphant human decency.
Still, there's a radiance to The Invisible Woman. It's in Fiennes's characterization of the author himself, a man who — perhaps suspecting the challenge he would pose to later performers — dubbed himself "The Inimitable." Here, the man of letters is a tireless celebrity, the life not just of the party but the age itself. In public, Fiennes's Dickens seems made up entirely of charisma and whiskers and the awe of those around him. With his pal Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander), a fervent opponent of traditional marriage, Dickens stages amateur plays and afterward hosts lavish soirees that seep into the dawn. Later in the film, we see Dickens giving some of his famous public readings, as hammy and self-regarding in his performance as Fiennes is scrupulous.
Dickens may dominate this world, but this story is Nelly's. "It was the life of Nelly that always moved me," says Fiennes. "Dickens was a fantastic firework that was going to be a part of it. If it became Dickens's film, then we were making the wrong film."
Instead, this is the story of how Nelly Ternan became a mistress. "At first it's about the journey, the incremental stages, Dickens circling her," Fiennes explains. "I wanted to avoid obvious moments, the locking-eyes-across-a-crowded room. In life, relationships happen incrementally, and attractions between people build, and people aren't always quite clear of their motivations toward each other."
Fiennes's direction is steady and sturdy, stripped of the flash of Coriolanus, his previous feature. Like many actors turned directors, he elicits strong performances, and two here are heartbreakers: First is Nelly, of course, as a woman in love with a man the world loves, too — a love she can't ever publicly declare. "What fascinated me is how she negotiates the social complexity of being pursued by Dickens. What choices does she have? She can't marry him."
One surprise, for Fiennes and likely for viewers unfamiliar with Tomalin's two books about Dickens and Ternan: Victorian society did allow for some unorthodox personal lives. "These are flesh-and-blood human beings with bodily functions," Fiennes says. "Nelly's mother [played by Kristin Scott Thomas with transactional frankness] is a really interesting figure. She acquiesced to the affair. The family was hard up, and she knew that the reality was that Nelly could be his mistress, and live well, as long as all the social taboos were respected. That's in Claire's book. She writes about actresses in the theater who would have lovers and their own arrangements. As long as things were under the radar, people got on with it."
The other heartbreaker is Catherine Dickens (Joanna Scanlan), the wife the great man left. In one of the film's most upsetting scenes, Dickens proves less circumspect than his mistress, going so far as to pen a letter to the press to announce the end of his marriage — referred to as "some domestic trouble of mine of long standing" — all without consulting Catherine.
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