Voldemort stars in a true Victorian romance

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Just as Ralph Fiennes is about to sit down to discuss his second film as a director, somebody yells “Here comes Voldemort!” In barely a second Fiennes loses colour, composes himself and chuckles bitterly.

The two-time Oscar nominee has been battling typecasting since his role as the sadistic Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List. He’s so good playing bad guys (Hades, Ramses, Francis Dolarhyde) it’s hard to think of him as the hero.

Fiennes wants to further stretch himself by developing a career as a director. His second film, The Invisible Woman, is about the extended extramarital affair between Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan, an actress 27 years his junior. The film recently received an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design, although the expectations were higher than that.

I interviewed Fiennes at the Toronto International Film Festival last September.

Who’s your favourite Dickens character?

[Fiennes remains silent, long enough to make me uncomfortable] Let’s go with another question and I’ll get back to you.

Do you feel you have to identify with the characters you play?

Sometimes it’s easy because the roles are similar to your own experiences. When that doesn’t happen — like with Amon Goeth or Voldemort — you relate to them through curiosity. In the end, the most important thing is that you own the character. If you try just to inhabit the role, particularly if we are talking about an evil person, you are in trouble because you won’t be able to understand his objectives.

Why did you…?

I got it. Inspector Bucket in Bleak House and Steerforth in David Copperfield.

Okay. Why didn’t you adapt one of those novels instead?

In the beginning, I wasn’t all that interested in [Dickens]. The story came to me through a script by Abi Morgan [The Iron Lady] in which Nelly was the lead character. The idea that someone could hold the key to the past of someone like Dickens fascinated me.

Considering all the information there is about Dickens, how did you decide what to use and what to leave out?

It was hard. By focusing on her relationship with Dickens, everything became simpler. I wanted to show his popularity, his role as a public figure. I tried not to think of him as Charles Dickens, but as an abstract concept: namely “famous writer.”

The film seems to justify Dickens’ affair with Nelly. His wife is not a particularly sympathetic character.

Since Catherine Dickens got married to Charles, she became pregnant every year. I believe she suffered postpartum depression. She was a good woman, but totally inappropriate for him. Based on his books, I have the impression Dickens had an ideal woman in mind and Nelly Ternan was the incarnation of this notion. Nelly became his muse and inspired his last few novels. I believe he saw her as his equal, intellectually speaking.

Which one of Dickens’ characters do you believe is closest to Nelly?

Estella in Great Expectations is a version of her. She is independent and cold, and from the beginning she establishes a distance between her and Pip. I suspect Dickens experienced all of that with Nelly.

Maybe he was more into the hunt than having a relationship?

Absolutely true. Nelly and Dickens consummated their relationship at some point — they had a kid. But along with Felicity [Jones, his co-star], we had problems imagining the circumstances in which this took place. There was a connection, but we estimated Nelly avoided the physical aspect of the liaison for a very long time.

Your movie also gives the impression Dickens enjoyed his relationship with his fans more than with any other person.

I don’t think Dickens himself knew who he loved more: his wife, his family or his audience. He definitely needed to feel the appreciation of his fans. It was nurturing, which is why he liked to read portions of his novels in public. I can understand that. Despite it all, I also believe he was a very lonely man, in pursuit of an intimacy that didn’t exist in his marriage.

How hard was it to get this movie made?

It gets harder every time. The only option is to make it for cheap. In the current circumstances, we couldn’t make The English Patient. Nobody would have put up the $30 million needed. Only big studios have that much money, and they are very calculating on how to invest it. If you look at the [TIFF] catalog, you’ll find many valuable films that won’t find distribution.

* * *

We share the elevator on the way out. I tell Fiennes how much I liked Strange Days, a Kathryn Bigelow science fiction flick he starred in. “Many people tell me that, but when it opened, nobody saw it,” he responds.

Chronically dissatisfied, this one.


A Mistress Carol

FEB. 14-17
3.5 out of 5

Given his classical formation and rigorous approach to acting, it’s no surprise Ralph Fiennes is a purist at heart. His first film was an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most obscure plays, Coriolanus. The outcome was competent, but cold. Predictably, it was only seen by a handful of moviegoers.

Fiennes’ sophomore effort, The Invisible Woman, shows a better grasp of the story. However his constipated direction keeps the audience at a distance. It’s like watching a painting: beautiful, but hard to relate. After a while, you want to move on.

The Invisible Woman concentrates on the later years of Charles Dickens (Fiennes) and his infatuation with a much younger actress named Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones, Like Crazy). Since Nelly’s family is badly off and Dickens is a celebrity, the relationship prospers for all the wrong reasons. The girl doesn’t have her heart in it, but with no talent and no money, a rich benefactor is not easy to kick to the curb. The fact she never gives herself fully to Dickens triggers his obsession.

Every motivation in The Invisible Woman is muddled, which makes the proceedings believable to a contemporary audience. The recreation of Victorian London is remarkable, not just because of the stunning costumes either. With so much working in his favour, it’s frustrating that Fiennes gets lost in formalities and fails to find the heart of the story. Maybe next time. /Jorge Ignacio Castillo