A Most Dickensian Love Story

The Invisible Woman
(UK, 111 min.)
Dir. Ralph Fiennes, Writ Abi Morgan
Starring: Felicity Jones, Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Joanna Scanlan, Tom Hollander
Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan and Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens.
Photo by David Appleby, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

It was first William Shakespeare, now it’s Charles Dickens. Ralph Fiennes sure is becoming a literary filmmaker, eh? The Victorian-era scribe fares a bit better than the Bard did thanks to Fiennes’ sophomore feature film The Invisible Woman. The Invisible Woman shows an impressive step up for Mr. Fiennes as far as the technical prowess of making a movie is concerned. (Chaotic cinematography and an off-kilter tempo were key faults in 2011's Coriolanus.) Fiennes still has a bit of work to do before he establishes himself an auteur in addition to being a very fine actor, but the back-to-back successes of Coriolanus and The Invisible Woman are steps in the right direction. All Mr. Fiennes needs to do is show as much improvement on film number three as he does with film number two and he could be the next great actor-director. The Ben Affleck of literary types, perhaps?

Fiennes’ latest film is an especially bookish one. The Invisible Woman, adapted from the book by Claire Tomalin, looks at the life of one of England's most beloved authors with a modestly scintillating eye. It’s not so much the story of Charles Dickens himself, but rather of the woman who gave cause to read between the lines. The Invisible Woman dramatizes the affair between Mr. Dickens (played by Fiennes) and a young aspiring actress named Nelly Ternan (played by Like Crazy’s Felicity Jones).

The film tells of the relationship between Mr. Dickens and Miss Ternan via flashbacks as Nelly recalls her affair with Charles. Nelly, now married to another man, is rehearsing one of Dickens’ plays with a chorus of school kids. Her esteem for Dickens’ words is made abundantly clear as she corrects the young thespians’ butchering of the text. Each word was precisely chosen, so it must be delivered with equal measure.

It was in bringing the words of Dickens to life that first drew the pair together, as Nelly’s memories introduce the audience to her first meeting with Dickens when her mother (played by Fiennes’ English Patient co-star Kristin Scott Thomas, who is quite memorable in an underwritten role) brings the girls to assist Dickens with a play. Nelly is in love with the man himself as much as she is in love with the words he writes—her sisters tease that she has read David Copperfield at least twice—but the feeling hardly seems mutual even though Nelly defends Dickens’ memory to the peers with which she rehearses the play. She keeps her past life with Dickens a secret and simply recalls their relationship in her mind.

The pattern of present-day episodes and flashbacks reveal a paradoxical Mr. Dickens as seen through the eyes of Miss Ternan. Dickens writes a decent love story; his readings reveal an acute eye for the human condition and the ability to articulate observations and social consciousness with greater manner than any of his contemporaries do; however, Dickens hardly seems like the man one expects him to be from print. The Invisible Woman reveals a man isolated and controlling, a Dickens who feeds on the all-consuming power of love for his own desires without heed to the needs of the women in his life. (The Invisible Woman, however, does show Dickens’ ability to put his social consciousness into practice as a charity reading acts as a first date between Charles and Nelly.) Nelly is equally starved, but her recollection of her naïveté writes its own perceptive account of the times in which Dickens lived and wrote.

Queen Victoria might have reigned during the years of Nelly’s romance with Dickens, but The Invisible Woman offers a fine portrait of a stiff patriarchal society in which women were defined by the men in their lives. Nelly isn’t an agent of her own desires until she walks in isolation on the beach and looks back upon her affair. She recalls the days in which her name was passed with a whisper as her mother worried dearly that a relationship with Dickens would sully her reputation. Mrs. Ternan’s fears weren’t unfounded, for Dickens seems to have treated Nelly as something akin to a weekend diversion as he kept her tucked away in the country while continuing his public life as a prolific writer in London, for divorce was too much a scandal. Dickens denouncing his own wife in the paper, however, was less so.

The Invisible Woman is essentially a tale of two women rendered invisible by Dickens’ desires. Among the flashback scenes is ample insight into the coldness between Dickens and his wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan). Nelly’s recollection of her first encounter with Dickens signals to viewers that Mr. Dickens isn’t the softest creatures where it concerns the women in his life. He introduces the Ternans to everyone in his theatre company and proudly presents each of his children, and then dismissively acknowledges his wife, who sits in the corner and nods. Catherine is given especially compelling treatment by Scanlan and Fiennes alike. The few scenes in which The Invisible Woman grants Catherine a voice present a woman stripped of her own selfhood and agency, rendered depressed and despondent by a husband who is celebrated for his consideration and observation, but pays little attention to the people living in his own home. The most striking scene in The Invisible Woman is that which pits both invisible women in a cruel confrontation, as Catherine is forced to present Nelly with a birthday gift that was delivered to her by mistake. Dickens himself requested she hand present the jewellery to her successor.

If The Invisible Woman does Catherine any justice, however, Felicity Jones’s portrayal of Nelly Ternan is doubly striking. Jones, who gave a truly revelatory performance in Like Crazy, is excellent once again in this tricky role of giving voice to a woman who rarely had chance to speak. Poignant in ability to suffer in silence, and then to do so again as she reframes the affair from a fresh perspective, Jones gives a performance of powerful subtlety. She owns The Invisible Woman from beginning to end.

Fiennes, likewise, is remarkably good as Charles Dickens. He honours Dickens' work with some great orations--Fiennes' readings of Dickens' prose is especially captivating--but he isn't afraid to make Dickens as comically repulsive as a character in one of the author's own novels might be. The director smartly lets his performance act as a complement to Jones, rather than as the overshadowing figure that Dickens probably was in real life. The Invisible Woman, thanks to the balanced script by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) and to Fiennes’ subtle direction, smartly observes the period of Dickens’ life with a Dickensian eye for atmosphere, sociology, and character.

The Invisible Woman, however, also plays a bit like a Dickens book in the sense that it is rather stiff. The slow pace and mannered formalities of the presentation make The Invisible Woman drag her train at times, although one must consistently note what an exquisitely crafted train it is. The Oscar-nominated costumes are impeccably detailed and the cinematography by Rob Hardy is luminous. (The grating score by Ilan Eskeri, less so.)

The Invisible Woman is a quietly compelling film that grows on you. (Like Nelly’s own memories, things need time to take shape in the mind.) The sumptuous literariness of The Invisible Woman should appeal to fans of the John Keats/Fanny Brawne romance Bright Star and those in the mood for something that reads between the lines of a novel love story. Fiennes might not yet be quite in the league of Jane Campion, but his most recent effort as a director is a step towards greater things. It’s a treat to see this insightful look into the life of Charles Dickens, but the greatest treat is the invisible woman herself.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

The Invisible Woman screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne until Feb. 3 and at The Mayfair Feb. 23, 25, 27.
It is playing in Toronto at the Cineplex Varsity and Varsity VIP and the Canada Square.