Unsurprisingly there is no actual invisible woman in this tale based on a period in the life of revered author and playwright Charles Dickens. Ralph Fiennes takes the lead role as well as the directorial reigns and once again demonstrates his adept skills behind the camera as well as in front of it.
Set in the 1850s, Ellen ‘Nelly’ Ternan (Felicity Jones) is a young and seemingly happily married mother and schoolteacher, though it’s soon apparent that she’s deeply troubled by her past. Through her memories we travel back to when she first met the famous Charles Dickens, a man she admired through his unparalleled works.
Slowly, through her passion for his work, and he through being more cogent in his writings and on stage as a very capable amateur actor than in his personal life, their romance comes to light. It’s a love that threatens to become very public as both Dickens’ wife and Nelly’s mother Mrs. Frances Ternan (Kristin Scott Thomas) soon become aware of it.
However, to save their affair, Nelly resolves that she must resort to a life of anonymity and ‘invisibility’.
It’s a purposefully slow paced period drama that is immersed in Dickens literature. Some might find the deep emotion and contemplative approach rather frustrating, but the performances are noble. These unashamed dramas are for a very particular type of audience.
The Bottom Line
Ralph Fiennes continues to display his acuity behind the camera in a seamless film that feels like something of a personal passion project. Although it’s a film involving Charles Dickens, it is in fact based on the book of the same name by author Claire Tomalin. It was she who persuaded Fiennes to take the lead role after his interest in directing the film. Tomalin’s instincts have been proven right as Fiennes instils Dickens with a certain liveliness that burns when he gets closest to his work, or to the woman who becomes his muse. It’s a very honest character study as they’ve told the story from Nelly’s perspective, driving home how those around artistic genius are often caught up in both the good and the bad. It shows the contradictory nature of a man trying to be good, but whose actions have an indelible and negative effect on family and friends.
Felicity Jones delivers a very well balanced performance as Nelly, who starts as the passionate, if somewhat overawed young woman who gets drawn into this complicated affair, until she ultimately struggles with being someone who cannot be publicly acknowledged by her lover.
It is beautifully shot with a very wispy melancholic undertone reflected in both Dickens’ and Nelly’s awareness that their love could be detrimental to not only those they love but to each other as well. All this captured and reflected in Dickens literature of the time as he poured his personal experiences into his work.
It’s a film based on a well researched biography – a tricky proposition considering the potentially vague elements of the story, but Fiennes does an otherwise fine job and although it is slow paced, the performances and dialogue keep you engaged, spiced up with some delightfully amusing sprinklings, especially early on with Dickens’ interactions with fellow playwright Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander), and thence an otherwise faultless display from the rest of the talented cast.