Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Hollander, Joanna Scanlan, John Kavanagh, Michelle Fairley, Tom Burke, Perdita Weeks, Joseph Paxton.
A tale of two women?
Based on the 1990 biographical book written by Claire Tomalin, The Invisible Woman tells the little known story of a torrid but clandestine affair that the celebrated author Charles Dickens had with a much younger aspiring actress in the 1850s. Dickens was then one of the most famous writers in the world, recognised wherever he went, and treated almost like a Victorian era rock star. He was also married and was the father of ten children. Given the frigid morality of the era, and his reputation, Dickens tried to keep the 12 year relationship a secret, hence the title. But given that Dickens supposedly burnt most of his correspondence there is little substantial evidence to support much of the speculation in the film.
The screenplay has been written by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, Shame, Brick Lane, etc). The film opens in 1883, when the adult Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones) is working as a teacher at a boys’ school in Margate, and is rehearsing her drama students in a production of The Frozen Deep, a play written by Dickens in collaboration with fellow author Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander). This evokes unsettling memories for Nelly as she recalls her affair with Dickens, a romance that supposedly informed some of his famous works, Great Expectations in particular. Dickens is thought to have based many of his female characters on Ternan.
The film unfolds largely in a series of flashbacks that take us back in time to 1857, when Dickens (played by Ralph Fiennes) was at the peak of his popularity. At a performance at London’s Haymarket Theatre, Dickens initially met the Ternan sisters, who were aspiring actresses. The youngest was Nelly (Jones), and she was immediately star struck by the charismatic Dickens. The attraction was obvious, and although Nelly’s mother Frances (Kristin Scott Thomas) seemed disapproving on the surface she seemed to tacitly encourage the affair. Dickens had grown bored with his wife who lacked his vitality and energy, and took advantage of the naive young Nelly and her obsession. Nelly was passionate about the arts and literature, and her keen intellect also attracted Dickens. But his insistence on keeping the affair a secret for fear of scandal took its toll. Nelly couldn’t really handle his emotional cruelty, but nonetheless, the affair continued until his death.
Despite the intriguing nature of the story, The Invisible Woman turns out to be a rather dull and plodding period piece and a bleak tale of a tragic romance. The Invisible Woman makes for a surprisingly passionless romance and dreary drama that will not appeal to a broad audience. This story about the secret love affair between Dickens and Ternan was previously told in the 2002 BBC docudrama Dickens, and in Dickens’ Secret Lover, a 2008 documentary made for British television, with David Haig as the famous author.
The film has been directed by Fiennes himself, who made his debut as a director with Coriolanus, a rather full blooded take on one of Shakespeare’s lesser known works. But here his direction is less robust and surprisingly restrained, but it seems to suit the material and the restrictive nature of its Victorian era setting. He does capture that frigid morality of the time, and the film bristles with a subtle eroticism. But he also keeps us at an emotional distance.
As an actor of great range himself, Fiennes seems to know how to draw solid performances from his cast. He taps into Dickens’ complex and flawed personality and explores the dichotomy of the character, delivering a rather unflattering portrait of the artist as a selfish and egotistical genius who thrived on public adulation.
Jones (from Chalet Girl, etc) is a revelation as the naive young Nelly, the shadowy woman in Dickens’ life, who grows in strength and maturity as the film progresses. She delivers a strong and nuanced performance as a vulnerable young woman coming into her own in society, and it is a gut wrenching and moving performance. Ironically, Jones previously worked with Fiennes on the drama Cemetery Junction, in which he played her father.
Thomas (who previously appeared opposite Fiennes in the multi-Oscar winning romantic drama The English Patient), is normally a strong and compelling actress who always delivers strong and credible performances, but here she is given little to do in a largely one dimensional role. Joanna Scanlan (Notes On A Scandal, etc) is effective, moving and sympathetic as Dickens’ long suffering wife, who is treated rather appallingly by the author. Dickens eventually divorced her in 1858. And Hollander (from Pirates Of The Caribbean, etc) brings a welcome touch of humour that lightens the dark nature of the drama.
The film is beautifully crafted and Fiennes’ attention to period detail is also excellent. His top notch production crew have achieved a sense of authenticity. Maria Djurkovic’s production design captures the look and feel of the drawing rooms of the upper classes in Victorian London, while Michael O’Connor’s costumes are vibrant and colourful, a nice contrast to the dour and bleak story. The film has been gorgeously shot by ace cinematographer Rob Hardy (Broken, Boy A, etc), who uses natural lighting where possible for the interior scenes. The super opening shot of a woman striding across a white, pristine beach evokes memories of The Piano.
There have also been quite a few films exploring the doomed relationship between an artist and a younger woman cum muse (Manhattan, Moulin Rouge, etc). While this period drama about this little known aspect of Dickens’ life carried great expectations it ultimately fails to deliver.