Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Genre: Biography, Drama, Romance
Running Time: 111 minutes
Synopsis: It is 1885 and Nelly Wharton Robinson, a woman in her late 30s, is living with her husband, George Wharton Robinson, and their sixyear old son Geoffrey in Margate. They enjoy a happy and bustling life running a school for boys of which George is the headmaster. Nelly, who loves the theatre, stages elaborate plays with the schoolchildren, including one called No Thoroughfare: A Drama in Five Acts, written by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Rather incongruously, her production stars Geoffrey as a lion. But Nelly is hiding a secret. She takes long walks on the beach, lost in her thoughts, oblivious to the melancholy of an English coastal resort in winter. On her return her distracted air catches the attention of Reverend William Benham at the play's dress rehearsal. When he points out there is no lion in the play he is intrigued by her insistence the two playwrights would not have minded her taking such dramatic license.
During the rehearsal, Nelly's thoughts drift to another time. It is 1865 and Nelly, then in her mid-20s, is on a train. Just as quickly, it is 1857 and the 18 year-old Nelly is attending rehearsals with her mother, Catherine Ternan, and older sisters Fanny and Maria, in Manchester at the Free Trade Hall. They have been hired to appear in The Frozen Deep, written by Wilkie Collins, and directed by and starring the famous Charles Dickens. The Ternan women are all renowned actresses, although Nelly, the youngest, shyest and prettiest, does not possess the acting talents of her mother and sisters.
Every aspect of the cheerful, noisy rehearsal is overseen with great skill by Dickens, revealed to the Ternan women as a wonderfully charismatic man in his mid 40s. They meet his good friend Wilkie as well as his family and children, including his wife Catherine Dickens. She sits apart from all the activity, looking tired and disinterested.
After a successful performance, Dickens hosts an exuberant celebration. The Ternan family are charmed by the singing and dancing long after his wife and many of the company have retired to bed. Nelly and Dickens share a moment watching the dawn creep in.
Back in 1885 and Nelly is in the schoolhouse library with Benham. She owns several signed copies of Dickens novels, a writer her husband believes Nelly knew as a child. But Benham's curiosity is piqued again as he glimpses a tiny lock of baby hair within the pages of an original version of The Frozen Deep. It is hastily hidden by Nelly.
In bed later that night, after making love to her husband, Nelly's mind wanders again to 1857. She is attending a reading of David Copperfield by Dickens with her family. They are flattered by the attention he pays them, particularly Nelly, who admits to him she has read the novel twice.
As the affection between the Ternans and Dickens grows, so Dickens becomes increasingly distant from his wife. The Ternans attend Doncaster Races with Dickens and Wilkie. When Dickens is mobbed by adoring race-goers, they recognise the true extent of his celebrity.
Unpacking at their modest London home, Mrs Ternan discovers Nelly's signed copy of David Copperfield and realises the feelings developing between Nelly and Dickens. When Dickens later visits Park Cottage, Mrs Ternan tells him she is conflicted. She is fearful her daughter will not be able to earn a living as an actress but neither does she want Nelly to risk her reputation as the mistress of a wealthy married man.
Back in 1885, Benham has joined Nelly on the beach. She admits she was 18 when she first met Dickens and that she was an also an actress. Benham realises what she is telling him, and that it is something she has kept from her husband, or so she believes.
Expressing remorse to Benham for what happened, Nelly's thoughts go to her birthday party in 1858. Now living in a handsome Georgian house provided by Dickens, the Ternans enjoy a pleasant afternoon. But it is disturbed when Catherine Dickens arrives with a bracelet for Nelly. It is a gift to Nelly from Dickens, wrongly delivered to her. Nelly is shocked by his cruelty towards his wife and is cold towards Dickens when he arrives later with Wilkie.
In an attempt to cheer her up they take Nelly to the home of Caroline Graves, Wilkie's widowed mistress. But Nelly is unamused by their living arrangements. The evening ends with both Nelly and Dickens consumed by a tumult of conflicting emotions and a new understanding of who the other is. Dickens' marriage to a devastated Catherine publically unravels with a letter announcing their separation he sends to The Times. It has a tremendous impact on both his family and the Ternans. Dickens tries to explain to Nelly why he did what he did and compares himself to the flawed, unheroic Pip of Great Expectations, the novel he is working on. Nelly suggests they go away together.
Following an idyllic time together in France, Nelly falls pregnant. But the pregnancy ends tragically in a stillborn baby boy and Nelly is grief-stricken.
They leave France and once back in England board a train to London. Dickens is busy working on Our Mutual Friend as Nelly watches the Kent countryside speeding past. Suddenly the train violently buckles and the world is upturned. Nelly awakes on a grassy verge, slightly injured. A distraught, unharmed Dickens tends to her before she sends him away to help the injured and to keep his travelling companion a secret.
Twenty years later in 1885, preparations for the school performance are in full swing. But Nelly is not there. Instead, she is talking with Benham in a graveyard, where he reveals he knows her real name, Ellen Ternan. With relief Nelly tells him about her life with Dickens, as if trying to make sense of it herself.
Her state of mind much improved, Nelly returns to the schoolhouse, slipping in beside her seemingly unsuspecting husband. Broaching the subject of Benham and Dickens, they are interrupted by a roar of a lion as Geoffrey rushes up to them and is tenderly embraced. Holding hands, his parents watch Geoffrey's joyful performance which is greeted with ecstatic applause.
The Invisible Woman
Release Date: April 17th, 2014
Question: What was your initial impression of what the project was going to be all about?
Felicity Jones: I met Ralph in Los Angeles. He said he had a project he thought I might be interested in, something he was very passionate about. I read the script and was completely enthralled by this woman Nelly Ternan who I hadn't heard of. I knew bits about Dickens and his family. I knew he had lots of children, that he was very close to his sister-in-law but I didn't know he'd had an affair with this woman. I read Claire's book soon after reading the script and then once I'd read her book I was completely captivated and felt I had to understand who this woman was who'd almost been entirely eclipsed by history.
It's interesting as everyone in the world knows Charles Dickens but it's almost as though the man himself has been quite invisible in the same way. The story starts with my character after Dickens has died and it's her, looking back and understanding this very intense and intoxicating relationship that she had with Dickens.
Question: How did Claire Tomalin's book help you understand what kind of woman Nelly was?
Felicity Jones: Claire's book was an incredible source. She describes the world in which Nelly exists so vividly. She was an actress. Her mother was a single parent with three girls, Fanny, Maria, and Nelly. And they were extremely poor, but absolutely loved reading, loved books, they were very well educated. They lived this fascinating existence because they were living in the Victorian era where women had absolutely no freedom whatsoever, but because of being in the theatre it allowed them to be more emancipated. It's interesting how they use that freedom, because they're very conservative, they care a lot about how they're perceived. When Dickens meets them I think he's just totally, blown away by this group of women who are so extraordinary.
Question: What did you discover about Charles Dickens himself?
Felicity Jones: He had enormous amounts of energy. You sense that from his daily routine. He'd get up, apparently have a freezing cold bath in the morning and then write, I think he says -blaze away' until the afternoon. In the afternoon he'd take these incredibly long walks. You get an impression of a man who is very hot-blooded and constantly engaged with the world and fascinated by London, and he literally walks the streets looking for inspiration. When he meets Nelly, he's confronted with someone who I felt wasn't particularly an open book, she's quite a closed character in a way. It feels as though Dickens finds this girl, as she is really, and he can't work her out. There's something, very unknowable about her and from that moment when he first meets her he develops this obsession with her.
Question: How did you find being directed by Ralph Fiennes?
Felicity Jones: Ralph is extraordinarily devoted to telling this story. Being directed by him was phenomenal because he will not let anything go. He's one of the best actors out there and he constantly was pushing me and doesn't let you just take the easy option. He always wants to get to something completely honest. His whole desire to make this film was to show an honest side of Dickens. In some ways people might be surprised because it's not necessarily the man people have grown up with. He was a complicated individual and he fell in love with another complicated individual and their love was fascinating. It was a fascinating story because they're completely intoxicated by each other but I don't think it was necessarily harmonious, I think, in many ways it was a toxic union, and I admire Ralph for having the guts to show that story.
Question: Ralph has brought together an interesting supporting cast of characters. How did they help you to breathe life into the story?
Felicity Jones: Everyone was very supportive of each other. We all got on and Ralph was very good at creating an environment where people don't feel threatened or intimidated. Despite the heaviness of the material, it was always good fun on set. People wanted to do the best they could do. We were all lucky to be a part of it.
Question: What was it like working with Kristin Scott Thomas?
Felicity Jones: It's really interesting working with Kristin Scott Thomas because I've admired her for so long. She makes such brilliant choices as an actress and is always doing interesting work. It's always the detail in her performance which is so wonderful to watch and her absolute devotion and commitment.
Question: Can you describe how working with make-up and hair designer Jenny Shircore, costume designer Michael O'Connor and production designer Maria Djurkovic helped you to immerse yourself in Nelly's character and world?
Felicity Jones: It's so good as an actor when you can completely trust the people you're working with. I've just been so impressed by Michael and Jenny and Maria. I just cannot tell you, what it's like to wear one of Michael's dresses. You think it's just a costume, but the detail, every layer is completely accurate as to how it would have been. And for Nelly particularly, because we take her from when she's 18 through to when she's 38, we've had to really carefully chart this woman's progression with make-up and costume. Those guys are just absolute professionals.
Every day I would just see a wonderful Michael O'Connor creation and be totally overawed. You just feel like a real person. Nelly was a real person and so I felt this huge pressure to live up to this woman, to present her in all her wonderful complications.
With someone like Michael who is an absolute perfectionist, you can build a character quite subtly through costume and then also through hair and make-up.
Question: What do you feel about Charles Dickens now?
Felicity Jones: It's very strange reading his books now, because I feel like I know him. I feel like I've had a relationship with Charles Dickens. It's opened up his work in a completely different way. You can't help reading Great Expectations and see bits of Nelly in Estella.
Question: What inspired you to write your 1990 biography: -The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens'?
Claire Tomalin: I've always loved Dickens. When I was at Cambridge, reading English, I did some work on 19th Century fiction and on Dickens. While I was reading around Dickens I read a very important essay by Edmund Wilson [Dickens: The Two Scrooges] that talks about his relationship with this young actress, and a very good American biography by Edgar Johnson [Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph].
They both talk about this little actress and they were both quite rude about her, -She didn't help Dickens, she wasn't very nice, she was probably quite mercenary', and so on. I thought, -She was Dickens' companion for the last 12 and a half years of his life. -Isn't it extraordinary nobody has looked at her?' She is just this little note, a rather rude note, in the life of Dickens. She must have had a life of her own! I was 19 then and I thought this is a story worth investigating.
Question: Why did it take you so long?
Claire Tomalin: I finished at university, worked in publishing, got married, had children, and years went by. I was working at The Sunday Times which was then in Grays Inn Road and went over to the Dickens Museum which was just in the next street. While I was there I talked to the curator and said, -I've sometimes thought of writing about Nelly Ternan.' He said, -I can't tell you how many people I've warned off that subject'. And then he stopped and looked at me, and I had published one book by then, on Mary Wollstonecraft [The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft], and he said, -but I think you might be the person to do it". He then gave me every assistance.
I had the most wonderful time because it is an amazing story. The story of this young woman who was taken up by Dickens. She obviously ticked all the boxes for him. He was a middle-aged man, he adored theatre, he loved young woman, he loved working women. She had worked from the age of two as a strolling player, she was part of a theatre family, her father had died when she was little, and she had two sisters who Dickens liked very much who were also in the theatre and were very clever and gifted. He was like Father Christmas for her. He was this wonderful, famous man who helped the family, who appeared and cheered them all up.
It was a fascinating story but still more fascinating was what I found out. Which was that when Dickens died, she reinvented herself. She had turned herself into a lady. She had been a lady of leisure, I think she'd had a pretty lonely time as both her sisters were married. She went abroad first to Italy to see her sister Fanny and then she came back and stayed with her married sister Maria in Oxford and met a lot of undergraduates. In that way she met the young clergyman whom she then married.
She didn't marry him until after her mother died. And she presented herself as 10 years younger than she was. Her son even put her as 10 years younger than shewas on her death certificate when she died. On some of the census returns she was even 14 years younger. How extraordinary to do that, to be able to carry it off, how difficult that would have been.
Question: As seen in the film, much of the joy and pleasure of Nelly's new life after Dickens' death comes from her young son Geoffrey, the child she had with her husband George Wharton Robinson
Claire Tomalin: I think she did lose a baby she conceived with Dickens. What [Dickens' children] Henry and Katey said was that there was a child but he died young. In the film he is stillborn. In truth, I think probably he lived a bit longer. She had a beloved child who died. It must have been a miracle for her when she then had her children. You can't help rejoicing.
Question: It's a fascinating story but do you also find it a very sad one? After Nelly died, her beloved Geoffrey was devastated to discover his mother's affair with Dickens.
Claire Tomalin: It is sad, very sad. I met Geoffrey's stepdaughter and she gave me a lot of information and a lot of photographs. At one time I thought of writing the story through Geoffrey. You could have written that story in many different ways.
Question: Does Nelly have any descendants?
Claire Tomalin: No, Geoffrey didn't have children. Her daughter Gladys married too but she didn't have children. I think Gladys was one of those people who doesn't do much in life.
Question: Why did you choose the title The Invisible Woman?
Claire Tomalin: What interested me was Nelly seemed to represent a whole lot of women in the 19th century who were hidden, who had these hidden lives. Because Dickens had taught her how to deceive, how to do things, Nelly rose up and wouldn't accept she was just going to be hidden forever, and recreated herself. And that is a terrific story.
Question: Why was it so hard to uncover information about Nelly Ternan?
Claire Tomalin: Dickens burnt all his incoming correspondence which means we never hear Nelly's voice. His letters to her, which I think did exist, have disappeared. People say to me -what would you like to know about Dickens that you don't?' and I say -I would like those letters'. His daughter Katey said, -if we could see those letters we would see a different person'.
Question: The story Ralph Fiennes and Abi Morgan tell in the film is of a great affair. How does is compare with the story you tell in your book?
Claire Tomalin: It's completely different from my book and that's fine! These are different things, a book and a film. The film is a love story, and it is wonderfully done. It's erotic, very subtle, and the way they are slowly, slowly are drawn to each other is most beautifully acted. The story of my book is very much more how she recreated herself. But I don't think anything matters like that.
Question: How did you find working with Ralph Fiennes?
Claire Tomalin: This would never have happened without Ralph. He has been absolutely wonderful. At first he was just going to direct but I kept saying to him, -You must play Dickens. You were born to do it!' And I think his performance is really wonderful. Felicity is terrific, a really wonderful performance. They are both very subtle performances. The film has an amazing cast. Tom Hollander, who only has a small part, is terrific.
I think Mrs Dickens is made more intelligent in the film than she was in real life! Joanna Scanlon, who plays her, is wonderful. She's given lines which suggest she was quite thoughtful but I don't think Mrs Dickens really was that intelligent. However, she was sweet natured and she behaved with great dignity. It is perfectly reasonable to give her the chance to say the things she says. They are truths about Dickens after all, that his public was always the great love of his life in a way. He depended on his public and nothing could come between him and his public, not even love.
Question: Is The Invisible Woman your first book to be adapted for the screen?
Claire Tomalin: Yes. We've been trying to adapt it for years and years and years. The BBC commissioned me to write a four-part series after the book came out. I toiled away on that and it looked as if was going to be done but then they didn't do it. People have been trying to do it. But only Ralph had the clout and the brilliance to actually carry it through.
Question: How closely did you work with Ralph and Abi on the screenplay?
Claire Tomalin: My husband [Michael Frayn] has been involved in films so I'm quite realistic about what one must expect from films. I decided once it was going to be done, and Abi Morgan said to me, do you want to come and work with me, and I said. -No, no, no, you're the scriptwriter, I just wrote the book. The script is yours'. Over the last few years I have made many comments on the script and they have listened to me but I wouldn't dream of trying to impose my ideas or my will. I'm very happy for someone else to make the decisions.
We had some good conferences. Ralph and I spent quite a lot of time talking, exchanging ideas and suggestions. Ralph went back and back and used things from my life of Dickens [Charles Dickens: A Life] as well as The Invisible Woman, and bringing in little aspects of Dickens. He's wonderfully imaginative. I know he and Abi worked very well together.
Question: How often did you visit the set of The Invisible Woman?
Claire Tomalin: I went twice. First when they were doing the Manchester scene and then I went down to see the aftermath of the Staplehurst crash scene. I was incredibly impressed. It is so impressive. To see what actors give to a performance is always very, very humbling. The amount they give, the total readiness. In film you do it again, you do it again and you do it again. To see Felicity lying in the wet grass, having been thrown out of the train…..it's terrific.
The design on this film is outstandingly beautiful and the soundtrack is wonderful. This film is a very beautiful work of art. The contributions are so diverse. Gaby [Tana] has been absolutely marvellous.
I remember the first time Ralph and I talked. He brought out a great folder of shots of the sea coast. He always had the idea of starting it at Margate. They had a very pure vision of what they wanted to do and what they could use.
Question: What do you make of the absence from the film of John Forster and Georgina Hogarth, two highly influential figures in Dickens' life?
Claire Tomalin: In the real story Georgina is a very crucial figure. It's alright leaving Forster out of this. Forster knew all about Nelly but I don't think you miss him. In a sense Dickens' friendship with Forster was lived apart from his relationships with women. It was a male friendship.
Wilkie Collins was around. And in way he probably encouraged Dickens because Wilkie lived a Bohemian life and had various mistresses. But what he says to Nelly, -We are the pioneers', of course they weren't. Wilkie's life turned into a frightful shambles, he had two mistresses and Dickens' life was a terrible shambles. His idea what they were doing was bold and brave and was the life of the future doesn't really stand up. I'm not sure in truth Nelly spoke to Wilkie Collins very much. Dickens' life was very divided. She had a very limited circle in common with Dickens. He got his friends to collude in keeping her out of view.
Question: The success of the collusion was extraordinary, wasn't it?
Claire Tomalin: It was in her interests too. If I had been making the film I would have loved to have seen the funeral of Dickens and then Nelly going back to Peckham [where she was living with Dickens when he died] just to see her packing up the house. Then she went to Paris. I think it's very possible her child is buried there. And then the Germans invaded Paris and she had to come to England and she next went to Italy to Fanny and the Trollopes. But that's another story!
Question: Was Nelly perhaps an antidote to all that for Dickens?
Claire Tomalin: Not entirely. Nelly and her sisters had grown up in a troupe of strolling players. Their father was put into an asylum and died of syphilis and they lived in very crummy lodgings. She probably would have only had two dresses. But she was young and fresh and pretty and they were three very remarkable sisters. Had they been born 100 years later they would all have gone to university.
But one of their attractions to Dickens was that they had been working children and they had had a harsh life. Mrs Ternan was very determined they should be ladylike and respectable. But that was done against living in very poor parts of London, and travelling around with donkeys, playing in very ropey plays to people who were not there for the sake of drama.
He knew all about that. In a way he was raising her up from that and in another way, I think, he loved them because they had had a hard time.
Great Expectations is perhaps true. Ralph and I talked about that passage. There is some true feeling in some of those passages where Pip is thinking about Estella which is romantic love which is unlike anything else in Dickens. It's not sentimental which is what is rather nice about Great Expectations as most of his young women in the earlier novels are really nothing, they are rather embarrassingly awful, they are ciphers. Whereas in Great Expectations and then in Our Mutual Friend, you get these very realistic feisty girls. So I think Dickens did get something that went into his books at the end. There is a certain feeling in Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend, which were his last two finished novels, that there is something else there emotionally.