(l-r)Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan and Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens Photo by David Appleby, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
When director Ralph Fiennes decided to bring The Invisible Woman to the screen, he turned to cinematographer Rob Hardy, BSC to help him transport his audience to Victorian England. Based on Claire Tomalin's 1990 biography of the same name, The Invisible Woman is centered on the true story of Charles Dickens’ relationship with actress Nelly Ternan. Dickens (also played by Fiennes) was 45, married, and at the height of his storied career when he met 18-year-old Nelly (Felicity Jones). The film chronicles their thirteen year secret love affair, which ended with his death.
Fiennes and Hardy had not worked together before, but instantly connected with a shared vision for the film. “Ralph is wonderfully obsessed with detail and wanted the story told in the most truthful way possible,” notes Hardy. “I had never shot a piece set in the Victorian era, and was itching to do one because I wanted to find a way to visually translate what that time may have been really like without romanticizing it. Adversely, the only reference point I had going into the project was an American photographer named Saul Leiter, who photographed the streets of New York in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The colors in those photographs were incredibly vibrant but also very succinct and painterly, which is something unique to film. So I went to a meeting at Ralph’s apartment and brought a book of Leiter’s work. I handed it to him, and he immediately said, ‘come with me,’ and took me upstairs. There on his walls were five original Leiter photographs. We knew in that moment we had found the way forward.”
The decision to shoot on film was made during those same early meetings. “You really have a palette of tools to choose from now, and we both agreed from the start that film was right for this project,” says Hardy. “Ralph was extremely focused on the whole idea of texture, and we knew that film would offer a texture that is unrivaled. We were obsessed with wanting to put the audience in the room with these characters, to allow them to really smell and breathe the air. I believe that shooting film provides this kind of immediacy; there are no artificial barriers between the audience and the subject. And with Leiter as our reference, we knew that only film could achieve what we wanted to achieve.”
After numerous stock tests, Hardy chose KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 5213 for the film’s interiors. “I wanted to shoot with as slow as stocks as possible. The 5213 offered a very different look. It breathed in a different way, a vibrant way. We had to do justice to the beautiful work the costume designer and production designer created, really bring those colors out, but in a very gauzy, elegant way.”
For the night exteriors, the filmmakers went with KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219. “Dickens was known to take long walks through London at night, and they became a feature of the film,” says Hardy. “We augmented them with very long Steadicam shots, which meant going in and out of soft areas of gas light. We wanted to create the reality of the dark streets at that time, with only Victorian motivated light emanating from the windows and the occasional gas lamp. I didn’t want to use big, backlight film lights or false moonlight, I never really believe that sort of thing when I see it, so I needed a stock that would allow me to capture the truth of it.”
The Invisible Woman was shot almost entirely on location in London and the coastal region of Kent, where the real story largely unfolded. “Most of the interiors were shot in and around London in locations that were very architecturally accurate for the period,” notes Hardy. “We wanted to be as authentic as we could be to Victorian London, and location shooting worked for us. The reality of the room, the size of the rooms, dictated the way we shot things. There’s a very melancholic scene towards the end of the film, where Dickens takes Nelly into the house he has bought for her. It required a gentle touch. They are standing by a window, for which I created a super soft, natural daylight by using a very broad tungsten source and then coloring and diffusing it to create a light that really just blossomed into the room. It feels in some ways incredibly natural, but at the same time has a velvety quality to it. We allowed the corners of the room to naturally drop off into darkness, as they would have.”
Hardy used the Panavision XL Camera and a set of Panavision G-Series Anamorphic Prime Lenses. “I used Steadicams on several set-ups to bring the audience into a space and then allow them to really experience it. When Nelly first meets Dickens, she is pulled along a corridor by an entourage, then steps out onto this beautiful stage, where Dickens is in full flow, rehearsing his acting troop. The camera swirls around and creates this sort of impression, psychologically, that Nelly is thrown into this experience. I wanted it to be all one shot, which again meant going from a very dark space into an incredibly bright space, and then back again, allowing the camera to pretty much go where it wanted. We were shooting in an old Masonic Hall, an incredibly large space, and it had a huge amount of light burning through the windows. I knew the stock was going to hold, and it did. We were never afraid to go into those darker corners and come out again. We allowed the light to behave in the way that the eye would see it.”
The digital intermediate was done by colorist Asa Shoul at Molinare. “Asa is an artist in his own right, and I knew that Ralph would really like him,” concludes Hardy. “He was very excited that we were shooting this on film. He had so much to work with.”
The Invisible Woman begins a limited release in the U.S. Dec. 25, 2013, and in wide release in the U.K. on Feb. 7, 2014.