Movie review: ‘Invisible Woman’ reveals Dickens’ true love

Film offers glimpse at secret, complex affair

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLEJanuary 24, 2014 

Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens and Felicity Jones as his longtime mistress Nelly Ternan in “The Invisible Woman.”

  • THE INVISIBLE WOMAN •••

    Rated: R for some sexual content. Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas. Director: Ralph Fiennes. Running time: 111 minutes. Theater: Flicks.

Nineteenth-century photography required that a person sit perfectly still for a long time, and so most photos of Charles Dickens show him either looking stern or glum. But there is one picture, in which he seems to be turning to the camera and smiling, and in that image you can see the man who wrote the novels. It’s that Dickens that Ralph Fiennes presents and plays in “The Invisible Woman.”

The film depicts the secret love affair Dickens had with the young actress Nelly Ternan, which began when he was 45 and she was 18 and lasted until Dickens’ death 13 years later.

At the time, Dickens was the most famous writer in England, an energetic public figure, not just a writer but a popular speaker and social critic, recognized everywhere he went.

He was also married.

Fiennes plays him as a jovial and extroverted personality, someone who can talk all night. But the sadness that seems so much a part of Fiennes’ screen essence comes into play, too, in that we sense something sorrowful underlying Dickens’ surface cheer.

The casting of Ternan was all-important. Felicity Jones looks very young, but she has the alertness of a keen intelligence, so that when she looks at Dickens we know that she can both appreciate his work and understand the man. Yes, Ternan is young and pretty, but there’s more going on here than a writer’s midlife crisis. This is a spirit connection with complex implications.

“The Invisible Woman” is Fiennes’ second film as a director, much different than his previous effort, “Coriolanus.”

Here, he uses long takes and a stationary camera, and the music on the soundtrack is mostly reserved for transitions between scenes. There is next to no underscoring. The result of this is an increased sense of being in the room with the actors, or rather with Ternan and Dickens. We can feel the quiet that surrounds them and their concentration on each other.

“The Invisible Woman,” based on Claire Tomalin’s book, is very good at pointing out the social difficulties surrounding the relationship, the power dynamics within it and the lasting effects of it.

Dickens’ wife, Catherine, is an entirely sympathetic figure, but as smartly played by Joanna Scanlan, she doesn’t have the vaguest conception of her husband’s work, and she has nothing of his drive.

The movie asks, is this really what Dickens was supposed to do? Never again be with a woman he loves? Never have a satisfying conversation with a woman within a romantic relationship? Just go around producing great work that makes everybody happy, but never be happy himself?

In the two-person scenes between Jones and Fiennes, Ternan and Dickens are equals — if anything, she has the upper hand. But in the outside world, he is all powerful, and she has everything to lose. This double fact underlies everything, from the concern that Ternan’s mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) expresses, to the secrets Ternan must keep in later life. Throughout, the beauty of Jones’ performance is that Ternan seems to understand it all, not just Dickens and his art, but the distance between the real truth and what truths can be spoken.

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