It may seem odd, when talking about a director only two films into his career, to describe "The Invisible Woman" as "a very Ralph Fiennes film." By his own admission, the twice Oscar-nominated actor has yet to forge a recurring directorial stamp; both his films exude the confident curiosity of an artist open to any number of ideas and influences.

Yet if the restrained elegancy and disciplined sexuality of "The Invisible Woman" -- a delicate, melancholic costume drama about Nelly Ternan, the historically sidelined mistress of Charles Dickens -- seems natural coming from Fiennes, that's largely because they match his refined, precise qualities as an actor. Those, too, are on display in the film: Fiennes plays Dickens to Felicity Jones's Ternan, and the two have a quiet but urgent chemistry that makes for one of the year's most unexpectedly moving screen romances. Though adapted by Emmy-winning screenwriter Abi Morgan ("The Hour," "The Iron Lady") from a 1991 biography by Claire Tomalin, the relationship at the film's center is still far from common knowledge; Fiennes's film illuminates it with considerable grace.

"I wasn't a Dickens buff at all going into the project," he admits. "I had only read 'Little Dorrit,' and obviously seen the David Lean adaptations and so on. But I'm glad I wasn't: the combination of Abi’s screenplay and Claire’s book was like switching on a light. But the thing that led me wasn't Dickens, but Nelly. It was the story of a woman who had not, or could not, come to terms with a past love that haunts her. That's the element in the screenplay I loved and wanted to strengthen."

The script came Fiennes's way as he was seeking a directorial project to follow up his 2011 debut, a resourcefully modernized yet classically performed adaptation of Shakespeare's war tragedy "Coriolanus" that earned him the immediate attention of critics -- but left him creatively restless. "There was so much I needed to learn, things I had sort of messed up, technical and otherwise, and I was very keen to get back into it," he says. "I didn’t know what the next one would be, and didn't for a second think it would be a Victorian drama. But this piece just got under my skin. I couldn’t let go of it."

Though Fiennes has a natural aptitude, like many actors moving into directing, for "nurturing and exploring" performance, he's most excited by the possibilities of the camera itself, and saw "The Invisible Woman" as posing fresh challenges in that department. "Photographically, I had chosen a high-intensity way of shooting on 'Coriolanus,'" he says,"but what I most enjoyed was finding the strong frame of the camera-observed face."

He cites his work with the Hungarian director Istvan Szabo on the 2000 film "Sunshine" as having particularly inspired him in this department. "I like that classicism, that stillness," he explains. "There’s one scene in 'Coriolanus ' where Jessica Chastain approaches the bed and and is partly masked by my profile; these two faces come together as one and there’s a moment of tension, something unsaid. It was so well executed by Barry Ackroyd: a complete moment, all the information held within the frame. I wanted to explore that more in the way we shot 'The Invisible Woman.'"

Working this time with up-and-coming cinematographer Rob Hardy ("Red Riding," "Broken"), Fiennes incorporated a range of influences into the new film's serene aesthetic; I observe that many shots in the film seem to echo the lighting and composition of 19th-century English painters, though he adds that more contemporary references came into play: "There's an American photographer we both admire called Saul Leiter who observes from behind glass or through doorways; he has a lot of shadow and masking in shots, so the eye goes to one particular part of the frame. Rob's composition is very exciting to me, his decisions over where to put the camera."

Fiennes still sees filmmaking as a learning curve -- "I still feel I miss stuff, and wish I'd gotten shots ofthis or that" -- but does believe he's improved over the course of his sophomore feature: "My technical awareness is sharper, my timing, my sense of letting moments play out before you without cutting too early. I’m still learning so much, but I think I was more confident in communicating with people, sharing the fact that I didn’t know how to solve a problem. The first time around I was so adrenalized and so crazy: I learned a lot in the editing about framing, camera, eye, face, the information you’re getting."

He credits Nicolas Gaster, his editor on both films, for teaching him about how shots read, and what translates to a strong performance on camera: "I’ve had to sit with Nick for so many hours, challenging the coverage on myself and seeing what’s working and what isn't. It’s kind of painful and peculiar to sort of put footage of yourself through that process: that’s shit, that’s shit, that might be okay, that’s okay, that’s the best one, the rest is shit. It's good for you in the way that a cold shower is good for you."

Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.