December 18, 2014
With certain period pieces, you expect certain things.
Like flashbacks. Someone takes a book off a shelf, or asks a question at a dinner party, and our heroine is instantly transported back to a time of great excitement and drama.
You’re going to get a late-night party as well, one of those robust gatherings where dinner gives way to many aperitifs, and finally everyone gathers ’round the piano for drunken merriment as the candles flicker wanly, and certain characters exchange knowing glances.
And letters. And temptation. And forbidden love. And scandal.
Director-star Ralph Fiennes hits all those notes and touches many other familiar bases in “The Invisible Woman,” which one suspects is a highly fictionalized version of Claire Tomalin’s 1991 book that told the shocking story of a secret, torrid, long-term and star-crossed affair between the married and already hugely successful Charles Dickens, and a teenage acting hopeful named Nelly Ternan.
Fiennes and screenwriter Abi Morgan make it clear from the beginning this is going to be Nelly’s story, and that might have been a misstep, given that Nelly is a beautiful and kind but somewhat bland personality, whereas Charles Dickens is, well, Charles Dickens. We meet Nelly (Felicity Jones) in 1875 as a married schoolteacher in a seaside English town.
Nelly seems to in a perpetual state of distraction. Nearly every day, she goes off on long, intense journeys on foot on the beach, as if she’s inventing the power walk.
Just when we’re at the point of fidgeting, we’re transported back to 1857, when Nelly was a teen actress appearing in “The Frozen Deep,” a stage play overseen by the one and only Charles Dickens (Fiennes).
Here’s a cool thing about Dickens: He was a 19th century rock star, and that suited him just fine. In addition to creating some of the most beloved, acclaimed and enduring novels and characters we’ve ever known, Dickens wrote plays, was an amateur actor, raised money for worthy causes, connected with the masses, read his own works to packed houses and even loved doing magic tricks. If today’s technology existed back then, Dickens would have 10 million followers on Twitter and he’d be Instagramming selfies of him with “Copperheads” dressed as David Copperfield characters at Charles-Con.
By the time young Nelly enters Dickens’ world, the great writer is 45, greatly renowned — and married with 10 children. Yet he cannot deny his immediate and intense attraction to Nelly, something that’s obvious to Nelly’s mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) well before Nelly understands the nature of Mr. Dickens’ intentions.
Though she looks the same as a married mother in her late 30s and as the ingénue who falls for Mr. Dickens, Felicity Jones gives a fierce and moving performance as Nelly, who knows deep down this affair probably won’t end well but cannot resist the charms and advances of a great (and greatly flawed) man. In perhaps the film’s most striking scene, Mrs. Dickens (Joanna Scanlan in a marvelous performance) confronts Nelly, tells her she knows exactly what’s happening and stuns her with some heartbreakingly honest insights.
The sets and lighting and cinematography are period-piece perfect. This is an exquisitely crafted film. Fiennes the director doesn’t engage in a lot of fancy, attention-getting flourishes, save for one shocking sequence where a seemingly innocuous journey turns horrifying.
It took me a while to warm up to Fiennes’ performance as Dickens. At first his choices seemed a little precise and mannered for a larger-than-life character who dominated every room he entered. But as Dickens’ attachment to Nelly expands from his initial reaction to her beauty to a deep, genuine, 13-year love affair, Fiennes makes Dickens more intense, more passionate, more impressive.
Some claim Nelly was at least partial inspiration for Estella in “Great Expectations,” as well as Lucie in “A Tale of Two Cities.” At the very least, Nelly was certainly a muse for Dickens. What writer doesn’t draw on his experiences when creating fiction?
Though “The Invisible Woman” makes it abundantly clear Dickens was a genius and a man of considerable social compassion, we also see evidence of his narcissism, his callous indifference to his wife (and the children who were old enough to know what was going on) and his selfish pursuit of Nelly. He’s a cad and he knows it.
By 1875, when Nelly was taking those long walks on the beach and still in some kind of extended mourning period, Dickens was dead five years. Nelly still had nearly four full decades of life ahead of her, including a long marriage and two children.
“The Invisible Woman” makes a convincing case she didn’t go a day without thinking about her time with Charles Dickens.