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Period biographical dramas don’t come much better than The Invisible Woman, an exceptionally involving and credible portrayal of the “whispered” relationship Charles Dickens maintained with a much younger woman over the last 13 years of his life. A career high point for Ralph Fiennes as both an actor and director, this unfussy and emotionally penetrating work also provides lead actress Felicity Jones with the prime role in which she abundantly fulfills the promise suggested in some of her earlier small films. After high-profile festival exposure in Telluride, Toronto and New York, this looks like ideal fare for Sony Classics to push toward a warm audience embrace in specialized release beginning in December.
Not at all a starchy and decorous tradition of quality affair, the film has a lived-in feel that is informed by Fiennes, in both his artistic capacities, with the gusto, energy and turbulence one associates with Dickens himself. Working with an intelligent and shrewdly structured script by Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady), Fiennes quickly establishes the vastness of the great author’s world—his artistic eminence, popularity as both a writer and public speaker, father of ten, tireless worker on behalf of society’s destitute—as well as his Victorian-era reticence to embark upon an extra-marital affair despite his now empty marriage to a wife who can’t begin to keep up with him physically or intellectually; as he tellingly remarks on one of his vigorous country hikes (a line repeated later in her life by his mistress), “I walk at quite a pace.”
Meeting Ellen “Nelly” Ternan in 1857 when she’s come with her theatrical mother Catherine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and sisters to perform in a Manchester production of his play The Frozen Deep, the 45-year-old Dickens is immediately struck by the 18-year-old’s beauty and poise. “She has something,” observes the bushy-haired and goateed author, a dynamo portrayed by Fiennes as an almost constantly erupting geyser of creativity and a contagious enthusiast.
Noting her husband’s interest, his wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), who has become extremely large in middle age but retains an almost angelic face, engages Nelly in talk of her husband’s work—the young woman likes Little Dorrit—and it seems that both the author’s moral temperament and his fame restrain him from easily acting on his impulses; he’s so well known that it would be hard to keep any secrets from the press and scandal in his position is to be avoided at all costs.
More interesting, however, and more difficult to dramatize is Nelly’s own reticence. Well raised and very close to her mother, she has career aspirations as well as a strong moral sense and a fixed idea of propriety. Only a tidal wave of a man such as Dickens could likely ever have broken down her reserve and, even when Dickens has left his wife, she has trouble understanding what her new role in life is supposed to be, given that the relationship must remain clandestine. In Morgan’s no doubt conjectural conception of the woman’s emotional growth, it takes Nelly many years, and a later marriage to a younger man, to come to terms with her longtime shadow existence.
In the early stages of their acquaintanceship, Dickens and Nelly are almost always surrounded by others in public places or with family members. A pivotal and brilliantly conceived scene is set late at night in Dickens’s study after a very successful charity event. It becomes the first quasi-intimate talk between the two, one in which the author subtly reveals his true feelings for the girl, but it’s all conducted with Nelly’s mother sleeping—or perhaps only resting and overhearing everything—on a nearby lounge. Morgan’s pointed but natural dialogue writing here is superb, as it is in another great interlude shortly thereafter in which Mrs. Dickens quietly lets Nelly know she’s aware of what’s going on, even if nothing really is yet.
When the relationship is finally consummated, director Fiennes exhibits a restraint entirely in keeping with the nature of the times and story, foregoing typical pawing, groping and heavy breathing in favor of a rather brief but highly effective indication of a sexual breakthrough. This sort of visual economy is also applied to two big set pieces—no doubt an example of making a virtue of financial constraints—first in a beautifully composed scene set at a big horse race, and even more impressively when the couple are among the many victims of a (true life) train accident on a trip from Paris back to England.
However Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan might have been judged at the time or may be even today by viewers, The Invisible Woman does an exemplary job of making the audience see and understand their relationship from the perspective of each of them. Although based on a 1990 book by Claire Tomalin, there must be considerable invention in the screenplay, since, as is illustrated in a shocking scene, Dickens burned virtually all his correspondence that made any mention of his lover. (The relationship was previously the subject of Simon Gray’s 2007 play Little Nell.)
The complexity of a great man’s career merges here with a young woman’s agitated struggle to redefine her role in life to create a richly satisfying dramatic repast. Fiennes charges Dickens with an engaging vitality that sweeps up everyone in his vicinity but is checked by a prudent moral sense that makes his percolating personality something distinct from generalized lust for life.
Luminous and thoughtful, socially composed and yet often troubled and distracted by the moral and social reorientation her life’s surprising course has taken, Jones is simply superb in a complex role. The other standout is the hitherto unknown Scanlon as a clear-sighted but simple woman who, one can infer, was an endlessly supportive and understanding wife and a fine mother but is now entirely incapable of giving her husband what he needs or of competing with Nelly. Her breakdown is devastating.
After his uneven directorial debut with Coriolanus, Fiennes is on top of every aspect of this film, which benefits from agile and eye-catching cinematography by Robert Hardy and production design by Maria Djurkovic and costumes by Michael O’Connor that richly evoke the era. Ilan Eshkeri’s score is another plus.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Opens: December 25 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production: Headline Pictures, Magnolia Mae Films
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Screenwriter: Abi Morgan, based on the book by Claire Tomalin
Producers: Gabrielle Tana, Stewart MacKinnon, Christian Baute, Carolyn Marks Blackwood
Executive producers: Sharon Harel, Maya Amsellem, Eve Schoukroun
Director of photography: Robert Hardy
Production designer: Maria Djurkovic
Costume designer: Michael O’Connor
Music: Ilan Eshkeri
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