If Ralph Fiennes wants to show his acting chops in roles like Caius Martius Coriolanus and Charles Dickens, then audiences should consider themselves lucky that he has the resources to make the films himself. His sophomore directorial effort, The Invisible Woman, utilizes a more reserved approach than 2011’s Coriolanus that befits its Victorian setting. It also reveals a versatility of style that feels more sincere and natural than similar Hollywood fare.
The Invisible Woman, based on the biography by Claire Tomalin, tells the story of Charles Dickens’ (Fiennes) 13-year secret romance with actress Ellen “Nelly” Lawless Ternan (Felicity Jones). They meet as he offers stage direction for her performance in The Frozen Deep by playwright Wilkie Collins (loveably played by Tom Hollander). Just like everyone around her, Ternan is fascinated by Dickens, but she demonstrates a real curiosity and intelligence that draws him to her just as strongly.
Their relationship inevitably blossoms, though it does so at the reluctance of Ternan, who feels guilt concerning Dickens’s wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan) and children. But Ternan’s yearning overcomes her guilt, and Catherine and Charles soon separate. That separation wouldn’t stop Victorian English society from destroying Ternan’s reputation, so Dickens and Ternan keep their love affair remained a closely-guarded secret (one that was denied by Dickens descendants as recently as 1933). Ultimately, Dickens’ celebrity status meant that Ternan needed to be kept from the public eye at all times, even in extreme circumstances.
The invisible woman in the title refers to that phenomenon, but it could just as well fit poor, jilted Catherine Dickens. People hardly notice her, and Dickens only introduces her as a rushed afterthought after bombastically proclaiming the names of his children at a party. In one overly literal scene, the collapse of their marriage is shown through the construction of a wall that separates them in their house, with Catherine’s broken frown gradually becoming more obscured by planks of wood. It would be interesting to get more of her story, rather than continuing with Dickens and Ternan, but it is possible very few accounts of her life thereafter exist.
Although details about the relationship between Dickens and Ternan remain shrouded in mystery — a scene depicting the burning of their correspondence is matched with the most melodramatic pieces of composer Ilan Eshkeri’s score — there has been enough investigation done throughout the years to offer some likely truths behind their affair. The film feels at times like a patchwork of clues gathered from inconstant sources. That patchwork is likely the culprit for the film’s structurally odd use of time. Peeks into Ternan’s later years come a bit suddenly, at times lessening the impact of the story, and Felicity Jones looks 18 whether playing Ternan at that age or in her forties.
That said, Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones do imbue Dickens and Ternan with compelling personalities. Their strong performances are outmatched only by the outstanding costumes and set design, which offer a transportive authenticity to the film. The Invisible Woman could be described as slow-paced, but perhaps that description is better suited to films with more definite plot structures that proceed toward a defined conclusion. The Invisible Woman is more like a series of memories from the lives of those involved — memories that depict events of emotional resonance or simply evoke the charisma that Dickens was so known for. Fiennes invites the audience to take part in the parties or to spy on the secret moments of this couple, so viewing the film is more like active observation than waiting to see what happens next.
For audiences who enjoy these (arguably voyeuristic) peeks into the private lives of long-dead historical figures, The Invisible Woman provides a meditative, careful, and meticulous recreation of Victorian England and one of its larger-than-life personalities.
The Invisible Woman opens in San Diego on Friday, January 24th at Landmark La Jolla Village Cinemas.