Meeting Ralph Fiennes is an event. There’s just no other way to say it.
Of all the famous people I have spoken to, no one has caused a bigger stir among my friends. People don’t seem to believe that you can meet him. For some reason he’s so universally revered, so legendary that it’s as if you announced you’re meeting a demigod.
With his leading man good looks and genuine air of mystery, Fiennes, 50, is a romantic figure for some for his work in films like Oscar and Lucinda and Maid in Manhattan, but he has also played truly memorable villains like the psychotic Nazi Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, to the serpent like Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series.
In person, though, he’s approachable but also a little bit otherworldly, a lively combination of charm and eccentricity that makes him electric company. Not many actors are this shy and professorial, but Fiennes clearly is.
If he doesn’t like you, it will quickly become obvious. That unexpected candor makes you warm to him, and it makes you believe in the characters that he plays onscreen.
Last week Fiennes was in New York to promote The Invisible Woman, his gripping new film about a May-December romance that changed the course of writer Charles Dickens’ life. In tone and content the film’s closest predecessor is John Huston’s unforgettable swansong The Dead. Fiennes’ film is equally stately in its theme and treatment, and has every chance of attracting the same degree of critical acclaim.
In the film Dickens is 45 and at the height of his career when meets the 18-year-old actress Nelly Ternan and immediately has his world turned upside down by her beauty and wit. It seems like a cliché to a modern audience, but Ternan (played by gifted newcomer Felicity Jones) genuinely understood his creative gift in a way that Dickens’ wife could not.
It was the kind of engagement with another person that Dickens craved, and here she was at last. But since she was more than half his age tongues started wagging immediately.
Meeting Fiennes, who directs and stars, I’m surprised to hear he lived in Ireland growing up. “We lived there a little bit when I was a teenager,” he tells the Irish Voice. “My parents moved to West Cork in 1973. My father built a house there near Bantry. Then we moved further east to Kilkenny.
“I went to St. Ciaran’s College in Kilkenny and for a spell at Newtown school in Waterford briefly. They were very different schools. One was a Quaker co-educational school; the other was Christian Brothers, very Catholic, run by priests. I was brought up Catholic. My mum was. We all for a while went to the local schools in Kilkenny.”
Who knew? It may explain his longtime friendship with his Schindler’s List co-star Liam Neeson (their respective families spend holidays together and the two actors are very close).
Fiennes also stars alongside Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, 19, in the forthcoming The Grand Budapest Hotel and is amazed by her confidence on set and in front of the camera. Fiennes played an Irish role in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, first at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, then on Broadway, where his Irish accent work was remarkable. His Irish credentials are more impressive than many realize.
This week, though, is all about Charles Dickens. Perhaps the biggest surprise about the famous writer is that although he’s considered an heir to Shakespeare, to date not a single memorable film has ever been made about his life and times. On the way to the interview I realized I couldn’t think of a single one.
“I can’t either,” Fiennes confides with a laugh. “It’s unusual because he’s good biopic material. But this isn’t his film, this is Nelly’s film,” he adds.
That begs the question — what made Fiennes decide to direct and star in this groundbreaking work?
“I read Abbey Morgan’s screenplay and I felt very moved by Nelly and her journey. I also thought what a brilliant, complicated, force field Dickens is. Everyone says he was cruel to his family, but there’s this thing about him, he’s a sort of child genius. Despite his agedness inside he’s like a whirlwind child who is hungry for life all the time.
“Even as his body was collapsing he was taking on these readings. I was moved by him, by his creative genius that isn’t able to comprehend or maneuver his own emotions and leaves wreckage behind.”
When we meet him in the film Dickens is obviously fed up of his wife Catherine.
“She couldn’t keep up mentally or physically with him,” says Fiennes. “In his head he was locked in a room. Nelly walks into his life and I think she looked like all the women he had been writing about. She looked like Little Dorrit, she looked like Agnes in David Copperfield, she looked like Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop.
“Suddenly there was this fantasy of the pure virginal girl. I think he saw that. He wanted to open the window on his life, I think he went for that. He was possessed I think. It was a massive infatuation. And I think it cost him something. I think he felt a guilt about what was going on.”
The first love scene between Dickens and Nelly is powerful, made more erotic because it acknowledges the physical attraction between them without actually consummating it.
“The scene where we’re kissing but not kissing explores the physical closure of two people. If you do close and go in for the kiss it short circuits, it’s done. There’s something about that space between people that I’m really interested in,” says Fiennes.
In his portrayal Dickens has huge empathy and weird blind spots which Fiennes illustrated by quoting from one of Dickens’ own books.
“I came across this great passage in Oliver Twist which I’m reading at the moment,” he explains to me. “It seems to me to nail an important thing about the contradictory nature of Dickens and of people in general.”
At this Fiennes stands up and reads me the scene from Oliver Twist where Mister Brownlow sends Oliver off to the bookshop with five pounds (a fortune at the time) to buy some books. I can hardly believe my eyes. There are quite a few people who would pay Broadway ticket prices to experience this moment, and lucky for me it’s a private performance.
“Brownlow gives Oliver temporary shelter, but Mister Grimwick is deeply skeptical that Oliver will ever return now that he has the money in his hands,” says Fiennes and he begins.
As he reads the whole scene leaps to life. He has different accents for the different characters. It’s as if he rehearsed it for weeks, but he’s just reading a scene.
“The boy has got a new suit of clothes on his back, a set of valuable books under his arm and a five pound note in his pocket said Mister Grimwick. He’ll join his old friends the thieves and laugh at you. If ever that boy returns to this house I’ll eat my head.
“With these words Mister Grimwick drew his chair closer to the table and the two friends sat in silent expectation with the watch between them. It is worthy of remark, as illustrating the importance we attach to our own judgments, and the pride with which we put forth our most hasty conclusions that, although Mister Grimwick was not a bad hearted man, and would have been sorry to see his friend duped and deceived, he really did most earnestly and strong hope at that moment that Oliver Twist might not come back.”
Fiennes erupts in laughter. “You see!” he says. Sometimes people put more store in their predictions than in each other, Fiennes suggests.
That tendency, although very human, can explain why things can go very wrong between them. “Of such contradictions is human nature made up,” writes Dickens.
Fiennes has cast veteran Irish actor John Kavanagh in the pivotal role of Nelly’s confessor, the man who helps her to get over the love affair that almost consumes her. It a canny casting choice, and Fiennes is delighted with Kavanagh’s work.
“I wanted a face that people are not used to seeing generally in the movies, and I wanted a great actor,” he explains.
“I wanted a benign presence to help Nelly explain what had happened to her with Dickens. I didn’t want a priestly Anglican figure; they’re well trodden in film. John is very thin and tall. He has an ambiguous element. We’re not sure how to read him. Is he possibly malign? Who is he?
“As the film scene goes on we realize he can help Nelly. John just has so many layers and his physical look is just so right. I didn’t want a round faced smiley English vicar.”
By the end of the film Nelly is slowly restored to herself. Or rather she restores herself to herself.
“I think she is restored. She achieves a sort of confession and release. She goes back to her husband and he accepts her,” Fiennes says.
“There’s a slightly triumphant quality to the music. There are all these things that are positive. I want the audience to reflect on her.”
Fiennes is most comfortable talking about his work, much less so about his life. He clearly long ago decided that fame and success aren’t worth the intrusions. It’s a measure of his artistry that once you’re in his presence you lose interest in them and reflect on his work instead.
He would love, he confesses, to do a revival of Friel’s Faith Healer. “I loved doing that,” and then he gives a wide smile that assures you he really means it. Broadway take note.
The Invisible Woman opens on Christmas Day.
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