It should surprise no one that it isn’t young actress Felicity Jones who is remarkable as “The Invisible Woman” in the life of Charles Dickens, it is star Ralph Fiennes directing himself as Dickens in his second film as director (the first was the much-praised “Coriolanus”).
Given the evidence here, Fiennes may have been born to play Dickens.
Jones plays Ellen Lawless (“Nelly”) Ternan, the young actress of the title who met Dickens in 1857 when she was 18 and he was 45 and had a relationship with him until his death in 1870.
That’s a long relationship. But relatively little detail is known of it, which is why Claire Tomalin’s book “The Invisible Woman” was a brisk seller and why this movie made of it has as much freedom as it does to imagine their lives together.
All their correspondence seems to have been destroyed. Despite those years and the importance of the relationship, you find precious few references to it at all in “The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens.” One, from early on, instructs a friend to go after Scotland Yard for spying on Ternan and her sister Maria. It’s supposedly a mystery to Dickens in Victorian times why Scotland Yard would want to spy on her and her sister, who are “in all things most irreproachable in themselves and most respectfully connected in all ways.”
All of which, by Victorian standards, was palpably untrue.
“What the devil” was going on with the Yard, he wants to know. And well he would. A lot of apparent “irreproachability” would go up in London smoke if the city at large learned about his mistress.
It did, but not disastrously for either of them. Dickens was a man of seemingly infinite energy and inner resources for whatever he wanted to do, and he saw to that.
It isn’t Ternan, who is the magnetic north of Fiennes’ movie, it is Dickens himself who is shown to us, at first, in raw form as a literal “good time Charlie” – dancing and carousing all night with attractive young actresses after performing in a play written by his friend Wilkie Collins.
To us now, his energy in life seems almost superhuman. He wrote – a lot. He acted in plays. And his public readings from his books were smash hits – quasi-rock star events in their time.
His marriage produced 10 children.
And a wife Fiennes presents here as a prig (Joanne Scanlan) until what should have been a devastating moment in the film when she finds out about Dickens’ affair after receiving, by mistake, a piece of jewelry meant for Nelly.
Dickens – almost inhumanly – demands that his wife personally return it to the mistress it was actually meant for.
It is at that moment when we are allowed to see that the long-suffering middle-aged wife who didn’t entirely understand the genius of her husband’s work (“a fiction designed to entertain” is how she dismisses “Little Dorrit” to which Nelly replies “surely it is more than that”) has been subtly attentive all along to his lifelong indiscretions. “He is nothing if not youthful” is how she understates his libido at that moment of thoroughly unnecessary revelation for her – a moment so despicably callous and designed to annihilate her pride.
“I do not love her,” says Dickens, in explaining his life with his wife. “She sees nothing, she understands nothing.” While the movie indicates something else entirely.
But only indicates.
If ever there were a movie moment that needed to escape completely uninfected by British reserve, it was that one. And yet it doesn’t – which, at the wrong time, seems to let Dickens off the hook with 21st century audiences.
And that fundamental evasiveness is true even of Jones as Nelly. She’s lovely – an actress whose plump lips and sharp acute eyes seem in conflict with each other on her beautiful face. There’s no stray glamour to that face, that’s for sure. She looks like a woman who might well capture the attention of one of the great writers in world literature. She looks too quite a bit like surviving pictures of Nelly Ternan.
The trouble is that after giving us, courtesy of Fiennes’ rich performance, a convincing historical Dickens, the rock star and tireless extroverted charmer, we never really know anything about Ternan other than her penchant for solitude and self-possession.
In the last third of the movie when their relationship is at its apex, you get almost no sense of it at all other than depression and foredoom. All is moroseness and tragedy.
Dickens jauntily referred to her in letters to a friend as “the patient,” an ironic and affectionate drollery referring to the immediate aftermath of a railway accident that both had been in together.
No sense of that affectionate vitality and wit inhabits the final third of the film.
It’s Dickens – and his struggles – that we see afresh in Fiennes’ film.
At the end of the film, beautiful and wisely appreciative Nelly Ternan is still invisible.
THE INVISIBLE WOMAN
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Felicity Jones, Tom Hollander
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Running time: 111 minutes
Rating: R for sex.
The Lowdown: Charles Dickens’ end-of-life 13-year affair with a young actress and his efforts to fend off all-out Victorian scandal.