LOS ANGELES - For his second film as director, British actor Ralph Fiennes lifts the cover on a little-known secret about classic English author Charles Dickens: his decade-long adulterous affair with a young actress.
Fiennes, a Shakespearean actor who made his debut behind the camera with 2011's "Coriolanus," used a 1990 biography as the basis for "The Invisible Woman," on limited release from Wednesday in the United States.
When Dickens fell in love with 18-year-old Ellen "Nelly" Ternan, the "Oliver Twist" author was 45.
He ended up separating from his wife, defying Victorian conventions, while his lover was condemned to a life of secrecy she found intolerable.
"People are surprised, they don't really know the story. In biographies, they have written about it, but no one wanted to focus on it," Fiennes told AFP, saying that for this film, he had "not had much interest in" focusing on Dickens.
"Dickens was not the leading component, it was Nelly. What moved me to make it was how does this young woman, how does she find closure? How does she find a reconciliation with herself about this secret life with this man?
"I was moved by her. And then alongside her comes Dickens with all his fireworks and his energy and his charisma," added Fiennes, who plays the writer in addition to directing.
To portray Nelly, he chose fellow Briton Felicity Jones. "I was looking for a really strong sense of interior life, because however you tell the story, I think Nelly is reactive," he said.
"It was Dickens who pursued. I wanted her reaction to have its own quiet interior drama. Felicity has this great gift of suggesting all kinds of thoughts underneath the skin, behind the eyes, and that's what I wanted."
Jones said she "found almost instinctively that Nelly was very contained, and that there was something quite mask-like about her and that she didn't give all her cards away.