Ralph Fiennes captures the scandalous love affair of Charles Dickens
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Remember the first time we saw Ralph Fiennes? For most of us, it was in “Schindler’s List” as Amon Goeth, the concentration camp commandant who woke up, strolled out onto his balcony to take morning target practice at Jews in the camp and then wandered back inside to engage in his twisted love-hate relationship with Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz), the Jewish servant he kept for himself. It is fascinating we see the latest example of such perversity between Master Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his prize field slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) in “12 Years a Slave” and somehow, it is no less chilling. That is likely because Fassbender exhibits the same intense depravity, a cauldron full of blind rage and assumed superiority with a key dash of conscience-punishing lust. Goeth’s lethal brew also contained a haughty intelligence discriminating audiences will note has been present in every Fiennes performance since.
Even when playing men of few words, like Francis Dolarhyde in 2002’s remake of “Red Dragon,” there’s fierce cunning and calculation in every frame that finds Fiennes either lurking in the dark shadows or emerging into the light – yet somehow, even then, masking a truth of the character from us. It’s worth noting though Fiennes has made a career being typecast as men of indomitable intelligence and charisma. Through it all, even in his most evil moments, there is a sense of the romantic in him, an ideal that helps us to see and appreciate the humanity in these mythic archetypes he bring to life.
So, it should come as no surprise to find him slipping into the role of the great Charles Dickens for his second turn as both star and director, working with screenwriter Abi Morgan (“Shame” and “The Iron Lady”) to adapt Claire Tomalin’s book about the late-life meeting between Dickens – at that time not just a celebrated writer but also a man dedicated to social causes (in particular the protection of young prostitutes and health care for the poor) – and Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), the daughter of Mrs. Frances Ternan (Kristin Scott Thomas), a widowed working mother raising her daughters in the theatre. Dickens invests all of his passion in performing and directing onstage and his philanthropic efforts because his marriage is a loveless shell. The chance encounter and the growing affection seen in his subsequent exchanges with Nelly inspire him to buck the social mores. He dares to display his love first in front of Frances – somehow ignoring the sensual romantic bonds established between Fiennes and Thomas in “The English Patient” – before penning a public letter announcing his separation.
Through it all, Nelly remains a marginal figure in what should have been her story. The title is telling, because even though she survives Dickens – managing to marry and build a career for herself as a stage director at a boy’s school – she, to a certain extent, allows her connection to Dickens obscure her identity. Nelly, as we see her in fragmented scenes long after her time with the great writer and love of her life, hides behind his work and her collection of his private papers.
Jones, a rising star (seen to great effect in “Like Crazy”), perfectly assumes the role of a “Hollywood ectoplasm” we can look through, which is a subtle bit of work for such an attractive actress. She’s not just playing down her beauty, she’s hiding her light under a blanket; or more accurately behind a masterful Fiennes who is also, in this intimate character study, interested in something other than an empty star-turn. Although, I wish for one of his jaunts at the helm he would give us a grand romantic gesture.