Ralph Fiennes Materializes in The Invisible Woman

"LOOK, to be honest, he really was very F***Ked up!"

That was Ralph Fiennes getting down to the nitty gritty of Charles Dickens, whom he portrays in his new film, "The Invisible Woman." (He also directed.)

The movie tells of Dickens' long relationship with Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones) an 18-year-old actress and devotee of his work. They embark on an affair that lasts many years, until his death. The romance, if it can be called that, destroys, without sentiment or regret from Dickens, his marriage to his wife -- the mother of his 10 children.

Even in the dim light of a quickly darkening hotel room, Fiennes' celebrated piercing blue eyes are, well -- piercing. He is as alluring as he was when I interviewed him back in 2005 for "The Constant Gardener." Thankfully Fiennes is no longer sporting the full dark beard he featured as Dickens, which made the handsome star all but unrecognizable. His excellent acting helped disguise him as well.

Although some people have found this story of the beloved Dickens showing him as unsympathetic, Fiennes says, "I hope I was able to convey what he had as a public figure that was so enjoyable -- his wit and love of life and his love of being admired. He had a lot of joie de vivre. There's no question that he did as he pleased. But from his point of view, he didn't do anything wrong. He was easily insulted and took great umbrage at criticism. He broke with several good friends and famous admirers when they heard of the Ternan affair and his treatment of his wife. He was very 'poor pitiful me' in a way. Everybody around him was mortified by his behavior."

• FIENNES REMARKS, "The movie isn't really about Dickens. It's more a take on the times. And I feel it is very much a woman's movie. It shows what was open to women of that era, how they had to accept and acquiesce and resign themselves to their limited possibilities."

Felicity Jones co-stars as the initially cautious, then besotted and eventually embittered Nelly. Kristin Scott Thomas appears as Nelly's pragmatic mother and Joanna Scanlon is heartbreaking but also pragmatic as Dickens' long-suffering wife. (The screening audience I saw this with, literally gasped at one scene when Mrs. Dickens is obliged--forced! -- to visit Nelly. I won't spoil it. But it's a stunning bit of acting give-and-take from the women.)

Some who have seen the film, which is done in flashback, have wondered why Felicity/Nelly seems to barely age in the film? Ralph explained: "You see, Nelly lied about her age. When she married, after her affair with Dickens ended, she shaved 12 years off her age to her husband. And she got away with it. My problem was how do I present a 20-year-old actress who, in parts of the film, is playing a woman of 40 who looks 30. So we did minimal "age" makeup and conveyed it through how she walked and spoke." (Nelly is often show striding along the beach, alone; attempting to sort out her feelings and memories about Dickens.)

The stately pace of the film -- which is beautifully photographed by Rob Hardy -- is the opposite of Fiennes' first acting/directing effort, the re-invented, vigorous, and acclaimed "Coriolanus." After that experience, the actor said he'd never do it again -- act and direct. But he says, "Well, I was gently being nudged in that direction for this, but the decision was eventually all mine. And no, I really mean it now--I won't do it again!"

• SHELDON ROSKIN reminds me that deaths come in threes in Hollywood fame. But over this past week, it came in fours.
  • Peter O'Toole, the biggest talent and most overbearing star in cinema history
  • Joan Fontaine, a big name star ("Rebecca," "Suspicion") who disillusioned almost everyone with whom she came in contact with. She is survived by her loveable and civilized sister, Olivia de Havilland, who said she was "shocked and saddened" by her sibling's death, despite their tumultuous, oft-icy, decades-long-estranged relationship. (The "feud" began in childhood and had little to do with one or the other sister winning an Oscar, though show biz legend prefers that version.)
  • Eleanor Parker an under-celebrated genuine star whom I never knew. (With the recent live NBC broadcast of "The Sound of Music," Miss Parker's glamorous contribution to the 1965 original has been fondly recalled.)
  • And, finally, Audrey Totter.

Miss Totter, despite her beauty and talent, drifted along in Hollywood, never quite making the top tier, but always an electric, welcome presence onscreen. She is perhaps best known for the fascinatingly odd 1946 noir, "Lady in the Lake." A Philip Marlowe tale starring (strangely) Robert Montgomery as the tough Marlowe, it was filmed from the detective's point of view. The audience sees only what he sees. Some people hate it. Others adore it.

Miss Totter, who had mobile features to begin with, is almost surreal in her wild-eyed expressions and reactions. It is something to behold! (Also great in that movie is Jayne Meadows. She has two over-the-top scenes that today would have brought her an Oscar nod for sure.)

RIP Miss Totter, you had few competitors in the tough-talking dame with-a-mink-and-a-gun genre.