Ralph Fiennes’ second directing project following Coriolanus tells the story of Charles Dickens’ secret love affair with a young actress. Who better to play the iconic author than Fiennes himself. Sarah Cooper reports.

Watching Ralph Fiennes on the set of The Invisible Woman, complete with beard, Victorian costume and surrounded by street urchins, he looks like he was born to play Charles Dickens.

But after the challenge of his directorial debut Coriolanus –in which he also played the lead -  Fiennes was initially reluctant to take on both acting and directing.

“It was a tough call. I was a bit wary having done it once on Coriolanus. But as I got to know Dickens, the actor in me saw the appeal of the role and the feeling that I should take it on became stronger and stronger” says Fiennes, who is now midway through the film’s 10-week shoot.

Based on Claire Tomalin’s biography, the film tells the story of the secret love affair between Dickens and young actress Nelly Ternan, played by rising British star Felicity Jones. Kristin Scott Thomas, who appeared alongside Fiennes in The English Patient stars as Ternan’s mother along with Tom Hollander who plays fellow novelist Wilkie Collins.

The project originated with Stewart Mackinnon at Headline Pictures, who had bought the rights to Tomalin’s biography, optioning it to BBC Films, which also backed Corialanus.

BBC Films head Christine Langan’s approached Coriolanus producer Gabrielle Tana with the project. “I read the book and gave it to Ralph and said I thought it was something really special. He was captivated by it,” says Tana, who was instrumental in raising private financing from the US for the project, which has also received development and production funding from the BFI Film Fund.

“We knew we had a brilliant director on our hands, and it just so happened that he was also perfect for playing Dickens. I think we gave him a fabulous quandry and I’m very glad he was courageous enough to rise to the challenge,” adds Langan.

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With his trademark attention to detail, Fiennes worked with the film’s script writer Abi Morgan, whose writing credits include Shame and The Iron Lady, developing and honing the screenplay for two years. “We tried to respond to Claire’s biography and the tortured nature of their relationship. With the age difference, him being married, the fear of scandal, it wasn’t an easy love affair,” says Fiennes, who brought Rob Hardy on board as director of photography after seeing his work on James Marsh’s upcoming Shadow Dancer while it was still in post.

“We seemed to have a shared approach going into a period film, visually, compositionally,” says Fiennes, who has taken the decision to shoot on film. “It was definitely the right way to go, because it has a richness to it, and a texture of light and colour which I love.”

The production has been buoyed by what Langan calls a “dream team” including the Oscar-winning costume designer of The Duchess Michael O’Connor and production designer Maria Djurkovic who was BAFTA nominated for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

The shoot has taken in a plethora of London locations including The Reform Club, Hoxton Hall and Princelet Street. “London is a gift in terms of locations. Yes we’ve had the usual logistics of shooting in a major city, but to have the architecture of the period, that is priceless,” says Tana.

For Eve Schoukroun, managing director of West End Films, which is handling worldwide sales on the project as well as co-financing, the film is as much about Nelly Ternan and her evolution into womanhood as it is about Dickens. “It is a very feminine film, and I’m glad the title reflects that. I also wanted to do a love story, and when I read the script I thought it was a very sophisticated and deep love story which is still relevant today,” adds Schoukroun, who has already sold the project to Lionsgate for the UK and Hopscotch for Australia.

With the combination of Fiennes, Jones and the renewed interest in Dickens in this bicentennial year of his birth, the film promises to be “one of the UK’s most high profile and hotly anticipated independent productions,” in the market, according to BFI Film Fund senior executive Natascha Wharton.

But while Dickens’ work has been adapted for the screen on hundreds of occasions – including a new BBC Films version of Great Expectations in which Fiennes stars as Magwitch - this is the first feature film to centre around the man himself.

“I sense that it has taken people a long time to accept the relationship, because instinctively people have been protective of his reputation,” says Fiennes.