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Trailer: The Invisible Woman

At the height of his career, Charles Dickens meets a younger woman who becomes his secret lover until his death.

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He has been described as being as smooth as a diplomat and, conversely, as volatile as a caged lion. There was also a time when he appeared to be gaining more notoriety for his sexual exploits off screen than for his Oscar-winning turns on it. Yet these days Ralph Fiennes seems happier keeping a quieter public profile, typically keeping the media at bay, with business firmly focused on his newfound career behind the camera.

Dickens had a ferocious, manic energy and could be very controlling. I think he had jagged edges inside him. 

Ralph Fiennes

Not that he's given up the acting game. The London-based thespian can be seen stealing every scene in Wes Anderson's film The Grand Budapest Hotel, out next week, and will again take the stage of London's National Theatre in 2015. There's also the matter of him returning to play M in the James Bond franchise, following Judi Dench's departure in Skyfall.

Felicity Jones and Ralph Fiennes in <em>The Invisible Woman</em>.

Felicity Jones and Ralph Fiennes in The Invisible Woman.

Today, however, we're meeting to discuss The Invisible Woman, an edgy, absorbing and suitably saucy look behind the closed doors of beloved literary great Charles Dickens. As with his contemporary take on Shakespeare's war-addled tragedy Coriolanus in 2011, Fiennes is behind the camera as well as in front of it. And again, he's playing the lead; the ''thinking woman's crumpet'', as he was once known, stars as a dapper and gregarious Dickens in what has been mistakenly viewed as a stuffy and staid period in history, Victorian Britain.

"We get bogged down in the sense that this was a repressive society, obsessed with the surface of things," he says, following the film's world premiere in Toronto. "Victorian times were very vibrant, full of amazing creative energy in the arts, industry and exploration. It was hugely dynamic. People in the West – of course you can point to all the horrors of colonialism and exploitation of other people – but there was a sense of purpose and certainty, which I think we've lost. If you were caught up in it, it must have been very intoxicating."

Fiennes, 51, was drawn to this story thanks to Claire Tomalin's acclaimed 1991 biography The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, which exposed for the first time the once-taboo notion that Dickens may well have fathered children out of marriage. Still, even Fiennes admits that few today are aware of this shocking near-certain truth behind the Father Christmas-like image the world has of Dickens, the author of classics such as Oliver Twist and Great Expectations.

Secrets:Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones in <em>The Invisible Woman</em>.

Secrets: Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones in The Invisible Woman.

"What I'm learning is that, although Claire wrote this highly acclaimed biography 20 years ago, it hasn't actually filtered through," Fiennes says. "Dickens was obsessively secret, so was Ellen Ternan. There's very little categorical proof. So I suppose even in Claire's book, she believes there was this secret relationship, she argues very persuasively, she musters all the information she can, but she can't prove there was a child, although she argues there was, and she argues that the child died. And yet, maybe it's the legacy of it being so secret, and so little written about, and the Dickens family were so protective after he died, maybe that's what we're dealing with."

Fiennes points to "12 volumes" of Dickens's letters, which he pored over as part of his research (he readily admits he knew little about the man, beyond reading Little Dorrit and viewing David Lean's Great Expectations and David Copperfield on screen and Nicholas Nickleby on the stage). Gaping omissions in Dickens' personal writings when he eloped to France (where the British went for illegitimate births in the 19th century) suggest Tomalin is very much on the money.

The Invisible Woman, which has been adapted for the big screen by celebrated screenwriter and playwright Abi Morgan, co-stars Felicity Jones as the young actress Nelly Ternan (then aged 18), whose relationship with Dickens (then aged 45) threw his family life into disarray. Jones described being directed by Fiennes as akin to being "directed by Dickens himself", such is the actor-director's drive on both sides of the camera.

Felicity Jones as Dickens; lover Nelly Ternan.

Felicity Jones as Dickens' lover Nelly Ternan.

"Ralph is so uncompromising, he doesn't just let things go," she says. She adds that her character, Nelly, was "such a bomb" in Dickens's life that he "wasn't the same after meeting her – she drove him crazy".

Fiennes himself admits to having similarities with Dickens. "I'm very adrenalised, and opinionated. That's the buzz, that's slightly addictive," he says. "It also played into Dickens. You meet Dickens in the film: he's rehearsing his actors, he did everything, and he mounted the production. The play's not a very good play, but when Dickens did it, it was a huge success. The details, the lighting, the snow effects, the ship that goes across the back and that little cannon, that was all apparently done. He took great care with it all. I love that about directing."

However, Dickens was, like many great artists off the stage, a complex and darker soul than many would believe: prone to fits of rage and self-doubt, while obsessed with both detail and keeping up appearances.

Ralph Fiennes on the set of <em>The Invisible Woman</em>.

Ralph Fiennes on the set of The Invisible Woman.

"Dickens had a ferocious, manic energy and could be very controlling," Fiennes says. "I think he had jagged edges inside him. He was capable of great acts of magnanimity and generosity, and social openness, a big-hearted man. But I think he repressed all kinds of feelings and emotions. I think he was a difficult father. I think he had fought and worked and driven himself ruthlessly to achieve this success, so he was quite vocal in his disappointment about his own sons."

Fiennes is the eldest of seven, from a hard-working family whose artistic flair drew heavily from their mother, author Jennifer "Jini" Lash, a painter and novelist. He has had two long-term unions with actresses – a four-year marriage to Alex Kingston, then an 11-year relationship with Francesca Annis, 17 years his senior. He made unwelcome headlines in 2007 when a Qantas stewardess, Lisa Robertson, confessed to having sex with the Oscar-winning star of Schindler's List, The English Patient and the Harry Potter franchise, at 35,000 feet. Since then, Fiennes's private life has remained precisely that.

One can't help but draw a parallel with Dickens' own saucy antics. Perhaps pre-empting this, Fiennes offers a suitable coda, as his publicist calls time.

Ralph Fiennes at Buckingham Palace last month.

Ralph Fiennes at Buckingham Palace last month. Photo: Getty Images

"It would have shocked people to talk about it," he says of Dickens' indiscretion with Nelly Ternan. "It would have embarrassed everyone if it had been out; you would have been not invited to certain dinners and parties, you would have been ostracised, people wouldn't have returned your calls. It would have been undignified to celebrate someone's embarrassment. Whereas nowadays, people relish in it. The New York Post would have a field day if it happened today."

 

Big-screen successes

The novel has always provided essential fodder for Hollywood. In addition to Ralph Fiennes' fine turns in Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List and Anthony Minghella's The English Patient – and David Lean's timeless reading of Dickens' Great Expectations and David Copperfield – are these classic book-to-screen adaptations.

The Maltese Falcon (1941) John Huston's hardboiled film noir starred Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor and scored three Oscar wins. It is still regarded as one of the best films of all time.

Brighton Rock (1947) Graham Greene's 1938 classic has been adapted since (in 2010), but it is this superior version, directed by John Boulting, that resonates. Richard ''Dickie'' Attenborough as thug Pinkie is superb.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) Gregory Peck leads this very fine adaptation of Harper Lee's American classic, in which an upstanding Alabama lawyer (Peck) must defend a black man falsely accused of rape. A staple in school syllabuses, and an Oscar-winning performance from Peck.

The Godfather (1972) Mario Puzo adapted his own epic 1969 crime novel with the film's director Francis Ford Coppola for what it is still regarded as one of the finest films of all time.

Trainspotting (1996) Irvine Welsh's era-defining novel became an era-defining film, courtesy of Danny Boyle and an irresistible cast that includes Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle and Jonny Lee Miller. A sequel is due in 2016.

Life of Pi (2012) Yann Martel's bestselling 2001 novel was deemed unfilmable until director Ang Lee and some eye-opening technology transformed this tale of a boy lost at sea with a Bengali tiger into an Oscar-winning delight.

The Invisible Woman opens in cinemas on April 17.