Ralph Fiennes • Director
by Boyd van Hoeij
- Ralph Fiennes’ second directorial effort, The Invisible Woman, focuses on the extramarital affair of English writer Charles Dickens with Nelly Ternan
Most famous for his role in The English Patient and currently starring in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel [+see also:
film profile], British actor Ralph Fiennes also finds the time to direct, starting with the Shakespeare adaptation Coriolanus [+see also:
film profile] and now with The Invisible Woman [+see also:
interview: Ralph Fiennes
film profile], a biopic of Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), the mistress of Charles Dickens (Fiennes).
Cineuropa: Your film is sympathetic to Dickens, but since you are exposing his extramarital affair, were you afraid of tarnishing a beloved writer’s reputation?
Ralph Fiennes: I wasn’t worried about it, but I thought it was important to sort of suggest the whole man, not just a man with a wife who’s having a love affair. It’s easy to become very reductive. I’ve tried to indicate this is a man of many assets. He’s devoted to good causes, like raising money for a hospital, he can be very affectionate, he’s full of vitality and social generosity, but he’s also quite tricky and he’s known to have been a tricky father and did leave his wife in quite a brutal, self-justifying way. This perhaps makes him less appealing but also makes him a complex, many-sided figure. But the movie is not about Dickens; he has to fit around the central figure of Nelly. The reason I wanted to do the film is that I was moved by the history of Nelly, a woman with a secret, someone who is holding her past locked inside her. It’s a sort of demon she’s haunted by. I hope that’s what will connect with people, as all of us can carry with us histories of past intimacies.
How difficult is it to also act in a film you are directing?
You have the chance to try and experience things you haven’t done before as an actor. But it’s complicated since you’re also behind the camera, guiding the performances, thinking about the cinematography and the editing. And I’m still learning as a director. You have to disengage from that as an actor, even though there is an area where it’s sort of complementary, as often, as an actor, you sort of direct yourself anyway. It’s quite rare to work with directors that have the vocabulary to be really helpful. Though they have the best intentions, they can often be quite clumsy about what they want. As an actor, you are left to refine and propose things. So for some actors, directing is a natural progression. And Dickens himself exemplifies the actor-manager of that time, as leading actors often directed productions around themselves. Indeed, you can trace the lineage of actor-directors back to the actor-managers in the theatre.
Dickens is a celebrity writer in the film, adored by the public. Can you relate to his desire for privacy from the public eye?
For anyone who’s had any contact with the curiosity of the public, there is this question of your privacy. The public starts to feel they own you a bit, they feel like they have the right to know, since you put yourself out there. So these questions of privacy and to hold things sacred and not have people know and be judged by the high court of the public, I’ve certainly encountered it, and it’s unpleasant. In those times, the newspapers wouldn’t have been so overt as the tabloids today, but in society, certain doors would close for you. If you’d show up with your wife even though it was whispered you had a mistress, you did the right thing, so you would be a good boy, but if you showed up with a mistress you’d be a pariah, you’d be excluded. People didn’t want to be confronted with inappropriateness — though they didn’t mind if they knew about it.
Have your directorial experiences influenced you as an actor?
Once you’ve directed, there is no going back. You have an opinion: ‘Why are you putting the camera there?’ It’s great to get a really meaty acting role with a good director - I’d still embrace that, but I’ve liked directing, and I’d like to find something else. For the next project, I’d like to do something original and maybe contemporary.