Arts Review, Movies

The Invisible Woman

The Invisible Woman featured image

Ralph Fiennes, director

Abi Morgan, script based on the book by Claire Tomalin

Starring: Ralph Fiennes (Charles Dickens), Felicity Jones (Nelly Ternan), Kristin Scott Thomas (Catherine Ternan), Tom Hollander (Wilkie Collins), Joanna Scanlan (Catherine Dickens)

The Invisible Woman stars Felicity Jones and Ralph Fiennes, who also directed the film. Fiennes is absolutely arresting as Charles Dickens, the great British novelist and celebrity, whose appearances as a lecturer and an occasional theatrical creator, turned him into a star. The film, based on Claire Tomalin’s excellent non-fiction work, and scripted by Abi Morgan (The Hour, The Iron Lady, Shame) recounts the affair that Dickens had with actress Nelly Lawless Ternan from 1857 to his death in 1870.

In order to satisfy his public and Victorian morality, Ternan and Dickens conducted their affair in secret. Only their closest friends and family—among whom, famously, was the writer Wilkie Collins (The Moonstone, The Woman in White)—knew about Nelly and the deep affection that she shared with Dickens.

The film explores their exceedingly difficult courtship—Ternan didn’t want to be a “mistress”—and how their relationship played out. The most harshly treated is Mrs. Dickens, who finds herself in half a house, when Charles decided to divide their home in two; later, she is abandoned for significant periods of time.

Fiennes clearly enjoys evoking the Victorian era and its theatrical troupes. There are lots to admire in The Invisible Woman but I do have two reservations.

Playing Nelly’s mother is the wonderful Kristin Scott Thomas, who was Fiennes’ romantic counterpart in the best film either have made, The English Patient. Isn’t it interesting that Fiennes can still play romantic leads while Scott Thomas is reduced to character roles as mothers? More devastating is the performance of Felicity Jones, who is being touted as a rising star. Her “Nelly” doesn’t entrance me—and one wonders what Dickens saw in her. That’s not the question you should be asking about a romance that left a woman invisible for over a century and a half.

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