Ralph Fiennes returns to TIFF with his second directorial effort, “The Invisible Woman,” about a young actress and the object of Charles Dickens’ affections. Fiennes also co-stars as Dickens alongside Felicity Jones as the titular woman. And Fiennes admits he’s becoming something of an expert in the author.
You play Charles Dickens in this, but it’s not really about Dickens.
It’s based on a book called “The Invisible Woman,” a biography about Ellen Turner, the young actress that Dickens fell in love with. I was ignorant of this book but I was sent an early draft of the screenplay based on it by Abbie Morgan, who wrote “Shame.” I read the book, which is a fantastic exploration of actresses in Victorian society. Dickens was a key figure, but it’s really the story of Ellen Turner and her family.
It’s a look at Ellen Turner and what it is to have had in your past this intimacy with a great, famous man — but a man, and a man in a particular position in society. The rules of the relationship and engagement with the opposite sex all came back to marriage, so anything outside of that was unacceptable. So how you negotiate that — affairs of the heart and desire — so that’s what it’s about.
You were in Toronto last year for your acting work in “Great Expectations,” which you followed with “The Invisible Woman.” That’s a lot of Dickens.
That’s true, I was working on “Great Expectations” when I was also working on “The Invisible Woman.” I had this sort of two-year immersion in Dickens. Up until that point I was pretty ignorant about Dickens, but now I’m a fan. I just think the humor in his observations is brilliant.
What sticks out about Dickens from your research?
I think Dickens was fascinated by social ambition. It features in quite a few of his books, this need to get on, to have money, to be a gentleman. England is still saddled with underlying, stupid class things, but back then I think those divisions were very, very embedded in a way that’s hard for us to comprehend, that to achieve social advancement was an extremely real and important thing.
There wasn’t that sort of counter-thinking, whereas now everyone’s bending over backwards not to be seen to be wanting to get on. They do all kinds of odd reverse actions if they’re ambitious to pretend they’re not, if they’re successful to pretend they’re not. But I think in that time it was about, “I am a man of substance or a woman of substance,” and there was no shame in that. Dickens himself worked his way up through his writing, but I get the sense that Dickens was very aware of where he’d come from.