The Invisible Woman

5 mins read

The scandalous true story of a grand passion requited with bitter consequences, The Invisible Woman is an impeccably acted picture about the adulterous affair that destroyed Charles Dickens’ marriage, the reputation of his young mistress and galvanized 19th Century England society.

Starring Felicity Jones (Like Crazy) in an emotionally wrenching turn as Dickens’ kept woman, seventeen-year-old Nelly Ternan, a bright and charming young actress first drawn into the writer’s celebrity orbit and then later his heart, the picture is at once an examination of personal mores and an intimate treatise on the sacrifices and compromises of giving into forbidden love. The heart wants what it wants, and The Invisible Woman bottles and uncorks reserves of pent up passion, courtesy of both actors, particularly Jones, whose close-ups tell the entire story.

Directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes, a reverent biopic of Dickens this is not—indeed there is something slightly off-putting about forty-something man’s illicit courtship of a teen, even by 1850s Victorian standards, particularly when he has a longtime marriage on the rocks and ten children caught in the wake.  It was a relationship that informed many of Dickens’ works, including Great Expectations, and the film makes reference to other Dickens works both in staged readings and bursts of inspiration, such as the author’s observations of downtrodden, London street urchins that obviously inspired Oliver Twist.

Scripted by Abi Morgan (The Queen) from Claire Tomalin’s biography of the same name, the film closely follows the few known details of Ternan’s life, a fledgling actress who along with her two sisters was managed by their actress mother (Kristin Scott Thomas, impressively shading a role that could have been merely opportunistic), who immediately recognized Dickens’ attraction to her daughter and given the uncertainties of their profession knew it best to secure their union.

Theirs was a slow-burn attraction that, even after Dickens own death, was kept secret by adult Ternan, and one that remains chaste in this picture until well into the second hour when Dickens abandons his marriage, survives the scolds of societal whispers and even a train wreck with Nelly—not even death could touch them.  And while Dickens doesn’t marry Nelly, they do produce a stillborn child, adding to the misery of their impossible situation.

The Invisible Woman pulls no punches in portraying Dickens as a reckless showman drunk on the attention of the masses, whom he later spurns, along with his long-suffering wife, superbly played by Joanna Scanlan, who gets two of the film’s best scenes, an unexpected visit on Nelly’s birthday and harrowing reaction to a most unfortunate public announcement. It’s quite a performance, and one that nearly walks away with the film and should have easily garnered a supporting Oscar nod.

Yet the broadness of Fiennes portrait is, at times, perhaps bit too theatrical (and one might argue that is precisely the point), though when the picture moves to courtship in its latter half his delivery of Dickens’ amour fou nearly redeems the preceding rakish behavior.  But in Fiennes performance we are never quite sure if Dickens is driven largely by narcissism and the worship of sycophants, and how much of that plays into Nelly’s own starstruck hero idolatry and his attraction to such. That Dickens eventually left both his wife and mistress destitute and alone, is clear. The picture takes no pains to rationalize his behaviors, even though Nelly herself does so through much of her ruined life, told her in flashback.  

In an awards season where the ensemble casts of glossy Hollywood movies like American Hustle are being showered with accolades, the supporting cast in The Invisible Woman is equally note perfect minus flamboyance. The wonderful Jones, particularly, has laser precision with her monologue in the film’s denouement, a scene of truth-telling that sets her free from a life of secrets.

Fiennes direction is capably straightforward with loving nods to theater of the time and while a touch Masterpiece Theater-esque at times, one cannot argue with the impeccable lensing by Rob Hardy and exquisite, Oscar-nominated costumes by Michael O’Connor, most notably Nelly’s black, funeral attire as she spends each lonely day after Dickens’ death, well into her adult life, walking the seaside.

3 1/2 stars.

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