When she died in 1879, at age 64, Catherine Dickens had been separated from her husband Charles for more than twenty years. During their twenty one years together she had given him ten children, dealt with his infidelities, his abuse and his eventual abandonment (he denounced her poor skills in all of England’s newspapers), but it remained clear until the very end that she was mad about him. Before passing away she asked one of her daughters to take the collection of love letters her father had written her to the British Museum, so that they would have proof that he once had loved her too.
If Catherine isn’t as notorious as her husband, things might just be about to change as the movies make her sad history justice in The Invisible Woman, Ralph Fiennes’ sophomore directorial effort in which he also plays the famous British author. Even though the plot centers on Dickens’ affair with Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), it is actress Joanna Scanlan as Catherine who steals the film with her delicate portrayal of a woman on the verge of losing the most important thing in her life.
We first meet her as an audience member during one of her husband’s recitals and if it wasn’t for the camera strangely fixating on her a few times, we would think she’s trying to remain imperceptible. Like all the great character actors, Scanlan has the ability to vanish when she knows she needs to allow lead actors to shine and she does this with precision and elegance. In what might be the film’s most devastating scene, Catherine is forced by Charles to show up to Nelly’s house and give her a bracelet she received accidentally. The women sit across from each other and as Catherine presents her rival with the gift, we see an entire lifetime of suffering and humiliation presented in Scanlan’s face. Without any words, strong physical reactions or affected mannerisms, the actress allows us to peek into a soul so damaged, it practically has stopped “being” and we understand that after that moment Catherine will only continue to fade.
I had the opportunity to talk to Ms. Scanlan, who was at home in London, and we discussed her nuanced work in the film, early feminism and her director’s most beautiful assets.
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For starters, how did you get involved in the project?
Joanna Scanlan: I was lucky enough to be asked to audition… it was very exciting! But also there’s a connection because the casting director in this film, also did casting for Girl With a Pearl Earring and we hadn’t heard from each other since working in that film. So, I went in and auditioned, asking myself to try and not to be too intimidated by Ralph’s piercing blue eyes. After that I waited for a few weeks and got the call.
What attracted you to this part?
Catherine is a woman who has a great position in the drama of the story. She has tremendous dignity and courage which appealed to me greatly. I was attracted to the idea of trying to inhabit all these emotions and her vulnerability. It was also about not spilling my guts, knowing that in that society you couldn’t express these emotions. What she went through was deeply humiliating and the idea of trying to keep yourself together, which she does was remarkable. Catherine was not quite a martyr, but she was a fascinating figure.
Charles was highly abusive towards Catherine, blaming her for giving him too many children and causing his misfortune, but in the film we also see how harsh he is to Nelly and how Nelly’s mother practically sells her to him. We get a sense of the overall oppression in which women lived during this era, which made me think the film should’ve been called The Invisible Women instead…
This is something that was very special about this project, the author [Claire Tomalin] wrote this book in 1991, she is a hardcore cold-faced feminist scholar, who produced something quite extraordinary: a detailed account of this woman we didn’t know existed. The research for her book was remarkable, she combed through private records, journals and letters to show us the reality of Nelly, who she was in history. That didn’t exist before she wrote the book! Her purpose was to remind us, “we all know about Dickens, about this wonderful author, but we don’t know about those women who inspired him but also suffered at his hands”. Here we have this charismatic wonderful man surrounded by women, all of whom have been buried in history. Claire understood these characters, through her letters and diaries and any piece of paper, she exposed us to some shocking truths about what it was like to be a woman in 1864. In the 19th century you had to make a marriage to have any security at all, Nelly’s mother [played in the film by Kristin Scott Thomas] was a struggling woman who was no longer able to provide for her daughters, she was desperate, Catherine too was absolutely desperate having been through ten pregnancies, suffering bouts of physical exhaustion and depression that couldn’t even be diagnosed, and young Nelly, loves him and he loves her, but none of them are happy. Nelly’s was not a happy love story.
You’re right, and watching the film I truly hated him…
...but Ralph gives us a sense about what was so wonderful about him; his dynamism, his genius, you can understand why these women bothered with him at all!
Yes, that’s true. Even buried under that awful beard and in full Dickens’ costume, Ralph looks very attractive…
...it’s because the eyes are still there, the piercing blue eyes. (laughs)
Speaking of Ralph, I couldn’t help but notice that essentially in the film he plays a director. How was this meta dynamic perceived by the cast and crew?
It was interesting because you could see both roles. Between playing a director and being a director, he had to change roles in front of my eyes. He approached me in Dickens’ costume to say “can you do this and that”, but he was the same man who playing a director who told people what to do, because essentially Charles told Catherine what to do, but Ralph Fiennes could only tell Joanna Scanlan, as an actress, what to do.
What do you think the movie has to say about the effect of fame in an artist’s life?
We are now in the age of extreme celebrity gossip which has undoubtedly grown exponentially and in the story of Charles Dickens you see the beginnings of that. At the time of the affair, the photograph made him a famous man, once his picture appeared in newspapers he became recognizable in the streets and his behavior was no longer private. Thing is Dickens wanted to be recognized and at the same time have a private life. He also took advantage of the railways to conduct his affair, because he had to travel away from his home to be with Nelly. He couldn’t have done it without the railway, so there is an interesting parallel between celebrity and technology then and now.
Speaking of celebrities, I hear you have a great story about meeting Patti Smith at the New York Film Festival in October.
She was amazing! For me it was a great honor, very overwhelming experience. Just being invited to the NYFF because I don’t normally play the kind of roles that get noticed. Meeting Patti was very exciting because I had just read her book, during the summer. I just always felt there’s nobody who represents New York more than Smith; she’s the breathing, living embodiment of the city, especially for someone my age, who grew up with the exciting enticement of what New York was in the 70s. As kids we ran screaming “Because the Night” and we loved it because it had the bad word “lover” (giggles). Oh and Patti was very lovely to me about my performance…
You mention not being used to these kinds of roles and that is mostly because you’ve done more television than film work. Can you mention the differences you find as an actress in each medium?
I love working in feature films because films have a middle, an end and a beginning. Television is always moving forwards…but there is something poetic about film because it represents something whole. Working in film too where the quality of all crew is gobsmacking, whether they’re stunt people or costume designers, they are truly the people I love hanging about with. The difference in TV is that there is very long term storytelling and it has more urgency because it is broadcasted to people’s homes, while feature films have a film screen; something separate and beautiful.
Your name has been popping up in the conversation for Best Supporting Actress contenders. How do you feel about that?
It’s very confusing, very flattering. I’m a tremendous long shot (laughs) I’m not known in America, so I don’t have any great expectations. It’s lovely to be talked about in those terms but the real award for me would be the opportunity to work with Ralph again or with other great film directors I admire. The feeling that I can help create something on film and more opportunities to work would be the biggest reward.
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From Sony Pictures Classics, The Invisible Woman opens in limited release Christmas day.