The Invisible Woman

The Invisible Woman photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgBiographical romance spotlights Charles Dickens and his clandestine relationship with English actress Ellen Ternan, or Nelly. By 1857 Charles Dickens had been married to his wife Catherine for over twenty years. They had 10 children together. Dickens meets Nelly, a struggling young actress who is performing in one of his plays, The Frozen Deep. He is 45, she is 18. Immediately taken with the girl, he ever so delicately pursues her in the most gradual way possible. Slow, methodically plotted story truly emphasizes the great lengths that Dickens took to tread lightly in his advances toward the woman. Based on Claire Tomalin’s book of the same name, this handsomely mounted costume drama is actor Ralph Fiennes directorial follow-up to Coriolanus.

In essence the film is about lust. But it‘s presented in the most carefully articulated way so as not to disturb societal conventions. There aren’t obvious displays of tremendous passion. Dickens’ pursuit of Nelly progresses through glances and things not said, but understood. Despite his best efforts, his attraction to the young woman does not go unnoticed by her mother portrayed by Kristin Scott Thomas. Mrs. Frances Ternan regards his intentions with a mixture of cautious uncertainty.  Frances is a small role but the inspired casting choice grants Thomas the opportunity to share the screen with the actor with whom she famously co-starred in 1996’s The English Patient.

For half the movie Nelly and Charles refrain from physically acting upon their desires. She initially rebuffs his advances. At a key juncture, Dickens brings Nelly to friend and author Wilkie Collins’ (Tom Hollander) home, where Collins’ lives in an openly unmarried affair with his mistress Caroline (Michelle Fairley). Nelly is visibly appalled that Dickens would take the liberty to expose her to it. They are clearly falling for each other, however, as their slowly growing emotions are perceptible. They keep their feelings hidden from the public sans overt demonstrations of their love. This isn’t the type of love affair we’re used to seeing, but that is what makes this production unique.

Dickens is a charismatic presence, particularly in Ralph Fiennes’ hands. In public he commands attention. He captivates a crowd in town who swarm around him like a rock star. Privately however, Dickens was surprisingly insecure and shy. Felicity Jones isn’t as acclaimed as her co-star, but she superbly proves herself every bit his match in the title role. She exhibits a wide eyed innocence that gives way to moral turmoil. Together the couple are static vessels externally hiding powerful emotion kept tightly within. The much lauded novelist, comes up decidedly short as a husband. Joanna Scanlan is quite memorable as Dickens’ wife Catherine. She beautifully conveys the heartbreaking realization of her husband’s infidelity in one devastating scene. The visit she pays the ingénue is mortifying. Catherine’s subsequent declaration to Nelly is heartbreakingly pragmatic.

The Invisible Woman details a specific period of a particular time. The 13 year relationship between Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens is not just a tale of love but of pain and regret as well. Occasionally the focus on this exclusive detail of the author’s life doesn’t always sustain the narrative. But more often than not, the production captures an era when traditional moral attitudes were held dear. Outwardly, Dickens was the passionate defender of home and family. But secretly his heart belonged to another . Even after separating from his wife, he continued to keep his association with Nelly a secret for fear of damaging her reputation. There were rumors, but he consistently maintained in public that Nelly was nothing less than a chaste woman. This endured for the rest of his life until 1870 when he died. These conventions seem archaic to modern audiences, but those social mores made this couple’s guarded behavior necessary. Breaking implied codes of decency would condemn a woman’s standing in the community. The threat forced people at least to maintain the appearance of adhering to accepted societal customs. I can understand why someone wouldn’t appreciate the film’s deliberate pace but that is precisely what I loved about it.

15 Responses to “The Invisible Woman”

  1. Interesting read, and well written. This is not my normal cup of tea, but I might seek it out due to how unique the tale sounds. Seems like it may be an emotional ride as well, which is always a good thing.


    • It may be a bit demanding for people craving excitement. There aren’t many traditional thrills. However for patient viewers, the emotional rewards are undeniably there.


  2. I really enjoyed Fiennes’s first movie Coriolanus, so I’d already planned on seeing this one. Your review was a good read, of course.

    Off-topic: I’m probably going to see Labor Day today. Given that it’s from Jason Reitman I have high expectations. Have you seen it?

    Envoyé de mon iPhone



    • I’m seeing Labor Day this weekend as well. How often do you see films in a theater?


      • I go 1-2 times a month in times like these. When there’s something particularly good out, I’ll go 3-5 times that month.

        By the way I didn’t end up seeing Labor Day. 😦 The plan was to go down to Maryland and see it while we were there, but as it turns out, shopping at outlets in Delaware was a more important stop. I mean I like new clothing, but since when does that beat a movie?


  3. Very nice review. I have went to the theater twice now and almost watched this. But for some reason I’ve changed my mind both times. I want to take the time to check it out.


  4. Very observant. I found the pace and tone of ‘The Invisible Woman’ difficult at first, but the film really grows on you thanks to how realistically and insightfully it conveys the attitudes of the era. (Great performances too!)


  5. My friend gave me a guest review of this one but she’s not as fond of it as you despite her love for period dramas. I still might give it a rent though as Fiennes’ first directorial debut was impressive and of course I love him as an actor. Felicity Jones is also a good actress who I feel is quite underrated.


  6. This was very slow paced, but I liked it. I like seeing movies about historic figures and their back stories. It was an interesting take on a secret affair and how they tried to keep it a secret. Not a positive subject about Charles Dickens, but intriguing. 3 stars


  7. Sounds like an interesting film. I didn’t know Dickens had all this juicy drama going on in his private life. I’ve heard that Fiennes is a pretty good director, however I haven’t had a chance to catch either of his features yet. You have me intrigued enough about this one to check it out. Great review Mark.


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