Who knew that Charles Dickens was an 1800s rock star complete with entourage, groupies…the works…all this despite a bad hairdo to rival that of today’s Donald Trump? There’s much more to the “Invisible Woman,” but that was my initial response to this extremely compelling movie featuring one of the greatest authors of all time.
Directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes, with screenplay by Abi Morgan based on Claire Tomalin’s book, “The Invisible Woman,” the film tells the story of the 13-year relationship Dickens (Fiennes) had with Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), beginning when she was 18. Dickens was married with ten children when he first met Nelly, a last minute replacement in a play for which he was producing and acting. She came from a family of actors led by her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), an acting family fairly well-known in the day.
The film begins in 1883 and Dickens has been dead for many years. Nelly is married with a child of her own. She is still conflicted over her liaison with Dickens and goes for long walks on the beach to work out those feelings. The movie is really about her coming to terms with that relationship in order to live the rest of her life in peace. Her affair with Dickens is a deeply-held secret, known to no one other than her blood family, Dickens’ family and his close circle of friends. Her community believes that she knew Dickens in her childhood, but that is the extent of it. As she walks the beach, we see in flashbacks how the relationship began and what, to some extent, their life together was.
While obviously Dickens plays a huge part in “The Invisible Woman,” the film really belongs to Nelly. It is her story. Felicity Jones does a tremendous job in showcasing a variety of feelings—naiveté, shame, vulnerability and anger. The early part of her association with Dickens, before it becomes intimate, is especially interesting, as she doesn’t know what to make of him and what she is feeling or should be feeling.
Ralph Fiennes never fails to amaze. As a director he does a terrific job in capturing the conventions of the time and helping us understand not only their story, but that of his wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), as well. For all his brilliance as an artiste, Dickens was not the best husband, to put it mildly, and Fiennes doesn’t shy away from presenting that side of Dickens in the film and the impact those actions had on the people around him. But it is in his acting…in his portrayal of Dickens that he really shines. Fiennes is fantastic at showing the “joie de vie” that many of us didn’t know Dickens possessed. He was no tortured soul. Fiennes beautifully illustrates how much he loved his work and how much he enjoyed most of his celebrity.
“The Invisible Woman” is a quiet, but an engaging film, with a real story to tell and terrific acting to tell it.