Abi Morgan's imagination is limitless. With the stroke of a keyboard, the British playwright and screenwriter can recreate the life of everyone from Margaret Thatcher, in the Iron Lady, to a sex-addicted advertising exec, in Shame, with co-writer Steve McQueen. And this Christmas, she, with the direction of Ralph Fiennes, is telling the untold story of one of history's most beloved authors, Charles Dickens, in The Invisible Woman.
Adapted from biographer Claire Tomalin's novel, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, the film reveals Dickens' (played by Ralph Fiennes) secret mistress (Felicity Jones). Rather than a sprawling sexual romp, the film is a more subdued meditation on a heartbreaking relationship.
Complex got the chance to speak to the Emmy winner (for penning the mini-series The Hour) on what attracted her to the project, collaborating with director/star Ralph Fiennes, and the film's December 25th release.
On bringing Claire Tomalin's book to life:
"I didn’t know Dickens had this secret, so it was fascinating to look at him through the prism of this illicit affair. I come from a theatrical family—my mom’s an actress and my dad’s a director—so I have a huge affinity for Nelly and that world. I know what it’s like to be brought up by actors and writers. That felt relevant to me.
What’s surprising is that the story shows another side of Dickens than the Christmas Carol romanticism surrounding him and 'the keeper of fun' he embodies.
I was more interested in Nelly’s character because of my familiarity with Dickens. I tried to look at him through Nelly and the novel. Growing up and reading Charles Dickens is such an important part of your education, so I felt well versed in him. What was interesting to me was the contradictory factors about him. He loved public attention, yet he had this quiet affair. It makes sense, as he was a very charming man. It was the Victorian period, so he presented himself as a very moral man, but he was a rock star really."
On portraying the sexual relationship between Nelly and Charles Dickens:
"To be honest, keeping their physical intimacy restrained felt very true to the relationship. It’s not to say that it wasn’t a very sexual period, although it was a time of huge moral repression as well. But they had more of a strange meeting of minds. She was a girl brought up in the industry and she was very attracted to the world of performance, and for an oddly extroverted man in that world, he felt quite insular. There was a kind of growing friendship. The book doesn’t go deeply into the sexual nature of their relationship. It was a long courtship before they finally slept together."
On working with Ralph Fiennes:
"We were working so often in his kitchen. I would be typing the script and he would be reading aloud the parts of the characters and moving around the room. He was very good at bringing things to life and talking about whether certain parts felt true to the character. It was a very physical form of screenwriting."
On the film's Christmas release:
"Charles Dickens is close knit with Christmas, with A Christmas Carol. What’s surprising is that the story shows another side of Dickens than the Christmas Carol romanticism surrounding him and 'the keeper of fun' he embodies. He was a man who was really struggling with a great personal conflict, and there’s something sweet about sharing that poignant part about him."
On Felicity Jones' talent:
"She’s a very exquisite actress in many ways. She’s got quite this contemporary feel to her, but she transforms and she’s great at carrying a strong inner life. Nelly is battling a huge inability to express her feelings, not only because she’s a mistress, but as a human being. She’s having difficulty expressing this huge trauma. Being an actress at that time was only one up from being a prostitute. You were a sort of concubine. So if there was a person who could find truth and humanity in a very complex relationship, Felicity was brilliant at it. She embodied this very contemporary issue of what it’s like to be on the sideline of your own life."
On the pressure of awards recognition:
"I don’t take any of it for granted. Everything’s temporary. It’s great that I got an Emmy this year, but next year someone else will, and mine will be forgotten. I try to stay focused on the work and recognize that I’ve been very lucky. Maybe it’s ‘cause I grew up with actors, but I’ve seen that recognition comes and goes, so all there really is is your family and friends. You have to maintain those constants in your life. Maintain what’s beyond your work."
As told to Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
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