A strong, carefully directed period film with an excellent cast, “The Invisible Woman,” lets us into Charles Dickens’s personal life. This is not a film about the good-hearted Christmas-loving Dickens.
Rather, it concerns Dickens’s 13-year clandestine affair with Nelly Ternan (fabulous Felicity Jones), which began when Dickens was a famous 45-year old author and his mistress was a beautiful 17-year-old talentless actress from a family of actresses. Ruining his 20-year marriage to his unloved wife, Catherine (first rate Joanna Scanlon) and despite his ten children, Dickens (excellent Ralph Fiennes) kept up both his secret relationship with Nelly and his charade of being the perfect Victorian gentleman until his death in 1870.
This biographical drama, based on the book, “The Invisible Woman” by Claire Tomalin, is ultimately the uplifting story of Nelly Ternan, who, at the start of the affair, had no rights and no future. Dickens is portrayed as a flamboyant selfish narcissistic hypocrite.
As “The Invisible Woman” begins, we first see a present day Nelly, dressed in black, walking quickly along the beach, still mourning for the now deceased Dickens, despite her remarriage. She struggles to close that sad portion of her life. In 1876, six years after Dickens’ death, Nelly Ternan married an Oxford graduate who was twelve years her junior. Still youthful and beautiful, she successfully presented herself as 14 years younger (23 years old rather than 37). The couple ran a boys’ school in Margate. But her husband knew little about Nelly’s life before their marriage.
Through a series of flashbacks, we watch innocent prim 17-year old Nelly meet Dickens, her literary idol. Gradually, because of a lack of talent, choices and will, Nelly succumbs to a clandestine life as Dickens’s secret lover. Despite being kept on the sidelines, Nelly apparently inspired themes and characters in some of his novels. We watch as she contributes to Dickens’s “Great Expectations,” which was set in Nelly’s birthplace. Nelly is impressive, clever and interested in literature, theatre, and politics.
It is painful to watch Dickens as an affable, charming and charitable man, when we learn the heartless way in which he treated his wife and his lover. In 1858, Catherine Dickens opened a jewelry package, which contained a gold bracelet meant for Nelly, complete with a note from Dickens. Dickens insisted that Catherine personally deliver it to Nelly. The couple separated in May 1858 after 22 years of marriage. Forbidden all contact with her children, unable to speak out in her own defense and discarded by Dickens, the stoic Catherine maintains her dignity until she finally breaks down.
Nelly is also subjected to Dickens’s cruel treatment. He continually hid his relationship with Nelly. While Dickens and Nelly are in a train accident, he abandons the injured Nelly, rather than be seen with her in public.
One important missing piece of Nelly’s life is the period between Dickens’s death and her new married life. How did she get through those painful six years? How did she meet her husband?
“The Invisible Woman” is an opulent, sensitive, albeit slow-moving, film. Its exploration of the mores and restraints of Victorian London and its effects on women is poignant. The acting is generally first-rate, the scenes, sets and costumes are period-perfect. Although Ralph Fiennes seems to be over-acting a bit and under-directing a bit, the skillful and nuanced script and the compelling literary love story capture our heart.
© Emily S. Mendel 2013 All Rights Reserved