Ralph Fiennes’s film about the secret love affair between Charles Dickens and a woman more than half his age is finally shooting.
It was announced to great fanfare at the Cannes Film Festival a few years ago when Christine Langan, head of BBC Films, joined forces with producer Stewart Mackinnon to get Abi Morgan to adapt Claire Tomalin’s brilliant 1991 book The Invisible Woman.
That book told of Dickens’s relationship with actress Nelly Ternan which started when she was 18 and he was 45.
It was an extraordinary affair. Dickens was perhaps the best-known man in the country, and he was married to Catherine — who had borne him ten children — when his eye fell on the blonde-haired Nelly.
The young actress performed in a distinguished but impoverished troupe of actors led by her mother, Frances Ternan (being played by Fiennes’s good friend Kristin Scott Thomas).
Nelly was indeed the invisible woman, and Felicity Jones — one of our best young actresses — was chosen by Fiennes, who is directing and starring as the famous author.
He explained how Felicity has to cover a wide age range, playing the younger and older Nelly — somewhat complicated by the fact that after Dickens’s death in 1870, Nelly rewrote her past, took several years off her age and married a headmaster.
‘When Felicity came in and read the part, she had something quite special and unique that was so exciting we didn’t have to look any further,’ declared Gaby Tana, who is producing the picture, in this, the 200th anniversary of Dickens’s birth, with BBC Films and Mackinnon.
I watched Felicity on set as she shot a scene with Fiennes and Tom Hollander, who portrays writer Wilkie Collins.
Jenny Shircore, the Oscar-winning hair and make-up designer, had given dark-haired Felicity blonde locks, and she was wearing a muslin-sprigged dress created by Michael O’Connor, another Oscar winner.
She has, as Fiennes observed, a "ferocious intelligence. She’s extremely perceptive and looms on screen." He added that it was important to have an actress "who could inhabit an interior life of someone much older than herself."
Felicity, taking a short break between shooting scenes at Leavesden Studios in Hertfordshire, observed that both Nelly and Dickens were obsessed with how they were observed socially.
"He wanted to break out of those social conventions but obviously not in any public way," she told me. "They managed after Dickens’s death to keep it a huge secret. It was a very sacred and private relationship. It would be impossible to keep such an affair secret now — it would be on Twitter!"
She added: "You hear this word mistress, which has all types of connotations, but Nelly was quite the opposite. She was a very smart almost puritanical woman, in fact. The film is about a woman looking back on her life and considering that relationship. It’s also about a woman who refuses to be completely invisible."
sources: 1, 2