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A few years ago, I decided to read all of Dickens’s novels. (I found a complete set of dusty antiques on eBay; I’m about three quarters through them.) Reactions ranged from “Why, how wonderful!” to just plain “Why?”

The subject of reading Dickens rarely meets with indifference. To this day, people either love him or hate him. Sadly, my own daughter falls into that second category, having struggled through David Copperfield as a summer reading assignment. (I believe the high school used it to winnow out the weaker candidates for Honors English; indeed, we know many girls who gave up long before the eponymous Copperfield grew to manhood.) Whether we gobble up his tomes or avoid them at any cost, we all think we know the author: prolific master of description, creator of countless colorful characters, champion of justice, friend to the needy.

After watching the new movie The Invisible Woman, you may also think of him as a heartless adulterer, a cruel egomaniac with an insatiable thirst for fame and utter disregard for the feelings of anyone other than himself. In some ways, he emerges as a complex, and too human, villain—exactly the kind of character we find in his novels.

Ralph Fiennes has chosen a rather unflattering portrait of Charles Dickens for his second directorial effort (in 2011, he interpreted another literary giant, Shakespeare, in his acclaimed Coriolanus). In front of the camera, Fiennes delivers a bravura performance as the great author, without shying away from his less than noble qualities.

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The Invisible Woman, based on Claire Tomalin’s 1990 forensic biography, tells the story of Ellen (Nelly) Ternan, a bright and lovely young woman with whom Dickens purportedly fell in love. She was 18; he was 45. She was an aspiring actress without much promise. He was a literary lion. Oh, and—minor complication—he was married, with ten, yes ten, children.

Fiennes, directing a staid and subtle screenplay by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady), first introduces us to Nelly years after her life with Dickens. She races across a beach, dressed in black from head to toe, clearly haunted by her memories. (This and other scenes evoke 1981’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman.) Living now as Ellen Lawless Robinson, she is a teacher, married to the school’s headmaster. Her past is a secret, slowly revealed as she helps her young charges put on a play by the late, great Mr. Dickens.

In 1857, some 25 years earlier, Nelly was brought in as a replacement for a performance of The Frozen Deep. The youngest in a family of actresses, she catches Dickens’s eye, despite a rather wooden performance. “She’s got something,” he tells his friend and collaborator Wilkie Collins. The author soon makes himself valuable to Nelly’s family. The girl is a fan of his work and eager to engage with him in lively and mildly flirtatious discourse.

“A wonderful fact to reflect upon,” he tells her, “that every human creature is a profound secret and mystery to each other.”

Without missing a beat, she responds, “Until that secret is given to another to look after. And then, perhaps two human creatures may know each other.” Dickens seems a bit taken aback and awkwardly escapes to find “Mrs. Dickens.” Soon, however, he returns for more. And, sadly, Nelly never really has the upper hand again.

Lovely Nelly comes from a family of struggling actresses. Her admirer is rich and celebrated and married. There is nothing uncommon about the course of events that follows. Her own mother brokers the arrangement, impressing upon Dickens that Nelly’s reputation must be preserved at all costs. He has his own reasons for secrecy. Dickens installs the Ternans in a home near his and begins to shepherd them to society events. Nelly knows she is being courted, but it isn’t until her birthday that she sees her future choices clearly.

The rotund Mrs. Dickens arrives with a gift. It’s a piece of exquisite jewelry, meant for Nelly, of course, but delivered by accident to the buyer’s wife. In an act of vicious cruelty, Dickens forces his wife to deliver the present to his beloved herself. The older woman, with remarkable grace and dignity, explains, “He is fond of you. But you will find that you must share him with his public . . .  you will never absolutely know which he loves the most—you or them.”

Dickens and Collins show up and whisk the birthday girl away for a “surprise.” They end up at the home of Collins’s mistress, Caroline Graves. Dickens is trying to show Nelly the kind of freedom they could have together. She is offended and distraught. Graves sympathizes: “We have fallen in love with great men.” “I am not in love!” Nelly snaps back.

She nevertheless becomes Dickens’s lover, living with him clandestinely after he quite publicly separates from his wife (the poor woman learns of it through his letter to The Times). We glimpse some domestic happiness, but Dickens’s ardor seems to diminish once he possesses her. Nelly remains a faithful fan of his work. but a reserved companion. In fact, the only real passion in the movie is a brief glimpse of Nelly’s sex life years later with her husband.

As one would expect, Fiennes revels in some impassioned speeches, but he wisely makes the movie Nelly’s story rather than Dickens’s. Young Felicity Jones is up for the task, more than holding her own with the older actor in long and sometimes silent scenes. Jones is arresting as Nelly, and we can’t help but pity her. Between her situation and his, and the social mores they adhere to, the events of her own life unfold without her complicity. She is the victim of a decision that was never quite hers to make.

Jones and Fiennes are joined by a talented supporting cast, including Kristin Scott Thomas as the fading older actress Mrs. Ternan, and Joanna Scanlon as the long-suffering Mrs. Dickens. The costumes and scenery are everything a lover of period drama could ask for, and Fiennes proves himself a thoughtful director with an appreciation for rich detail. There are enough allusions to his books to satisfy Dickens enthusiasts (I know you’re out there). Although the movie moves slowly for a modern audience, the pace may be a deliberate choice. Nelly’s sense of solitude is palpable.

I expected The Invisible Woman to be a love story, but it isn’t. It’s the story of a young girl joining her life with that of a great man who isn’t necessarily a good one. And then she disappears.

‘The Invisible Woman’ Official Trailer