"You wish he'd just have shut up," Fiennes says, a little pained. "Look, you've fallen in love, you want to leave the marriage and get on with it, but don't go around telling the world you're the aggrieved party. I see a man in his middle years, flailing, one who's a bit like a child who thrashes out defensively in the face of criticism. He dishonored her a bit."

The film does the opposite. Scanlan's Catherine is the slightly frowsy mother of many who just doesn't have it in her to keep up with her husband's relentless high-spiritedness. Yet there she sits, at parties and plays, just out of the spotlight, supportive yet beat.

Either of these women could, in some ways, be the invisible woman of the title. Both performances are superb, as is Fiennes, who credits a little of what he knows about working with actors to his time with Steven Spielberg, possibly the closest an artist of this era has come to Dickens' belovedness. "It was as if he kept probing me, trying to find that moment when an actor's preparedness was slightly broken," Fiennes recounts. "He would say things like, 'Change that word; you've said it like that. Do something just a little bit different.' He was pushing for the little surprising bursts of energy—a turn of the head or an unexpected emphasis."

As an actor, Fiennes has now completed a double hat-trick of quintessential Britondom—Hamlet (for which he won a Tony), Wuthering Heights' Heathcliff, J.K. Rowling's big bad wizard, The Avengers' John Steed, and James Bond's boss, M—likely the only role he ever took over from Dame Judi Dench. ("I'm not sure how happy she is about it," he says and laughs, before confirming that the next Bond movie most likely shoots in late 2014.) Next up, he's hoping to return to the theater, and then more directing and performing.

And reading. Before The Invisible Woman, he wasn't much of a Dickens fan, but the experience of making the film, as well as of appearing as the convict Magwitch in Mike Newell's recent Great Expectations, stirred in him love and insight for both the man and his work. "The cold-hearted Estella of Great Expectations, I think, was a version of Nelly," Fiennes says. "She was quite difficult to get, and I think in his imaginative world, the morally flawed Pip is Dickens. We used Pip's famous love speech to Estella in the film. It's one of the most beautiful declarations of love ever written, a man saying, 'This is all of me, the bad and the good in me.' That seems to come from his heart. He knew, in the end, he had damaged his family, but he lays his heart on the line for her, and I can't help loving him for that."

"In life, relationships happen incrementally, and attractions build, and people aren't always quite clear of their motivations toward each other."

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