The Invisible Woman

The Invisible Woman

★★★★

(directed by Ralph Fiennes, 2014)

My goodness, it’s been a while! Work has been keeping me busy and it’s been hard to find the time to devote to blog posts. However, I simply have to write a few words about this film, which I actually saw a couple of weeks ago, before I forget the finer details. The Invisible Woman tells the story of Charles Dickens’s well-known love affair with the young actress Ellen (Nelly) Ternan. Based on Claire Tomalin’s book, the film looks at the development of the relationship through Nelly’s eyes, giving the romance even more interesting layers and ethical grey areas than it might otherwise have had. It manages to be thoughtful, intelligent and refreshingly different from your average Victorian bonnets-and-bustles drama, while still revelling in period colour and costume.

Eighteen-year-old Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones) is the daughter of two actors and her two older sisters have already made triumphant débuts on the stage: she has always taken it for granted that she will tread the boards as well. In August 1857 she, her mother and her sister Maria are offered roles in the Manchester run of a play called The Frozen Deep. Written by Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander, virtually unrecognisable) and directed by his energetic friend Dickens (Ralph Fiennes), the play turns out to be a popular success; but it will be remembered less for its own merits than the romance it engenders.

Nelly is initially so starstruck by Dickens, and so flattered by the interest he shows in her in return, that she doesn’t consider where it might lead; but not everyone is so naive. Her widowed mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her oldest sister (Amanda Hale) are both all too conscious of the hardships of a theatrical lifestyle, especially where the actress in question (like Nelly) doesn’t have an innate talent for performance. They begin to wonder about Dickens’s fascination with their young ingénue and the opportunities it might offer her. And so Nelly finds herself having to make a painfully difficult choice: should she sacrifice her virtue to the man who admires her, and thereby secure her future; or should she stick to her Victorian morals and risk the lonely uncertainty of life on the stage?

The Invisible Woman

The Ternan family: Maria (Perdita Weeks), Fanny (Amanda Hale), Nelly (Felicity Jones) and their widowed mother (Kristin Scott Thomas)

This could so easily have been a conventional period romance, but it becomes something much more fascinating and troubling. Take the characterisation of Dickens, for example. On the one hand Fiennes gives us an attractive and charismatic man, fond of company and laughter, with an appealing vulnerability simmering beneath. But at the same time this man, the most beloved writer in England, is capable of monstrous behaviour to his wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), whom he considers intellectually inferior. Perhaps the climax of this emotional cruelty is his decision to announce their separation in an open letter in The Times – meaning that Catherine learns of the dissolution of her marriage at the same time as the rest of the scandalised nation. Scanlan turns in a performance of heart-rending dignity, particularly in the scene where her husband compels her to deliver a gold bracelet to Nelly for her birthday, when the gift is delivered to Catherine by mistake. So much is said without words. And indeed, the film’s sympathy for Catherine – where many romances might see her as little more than an unwieldy stumbling-block – is telling. The story isn’t about the affair per se but in the emotional toll it takes on those involved.

This is Ralph Fiennes’s second film as director, after his impressive Coriolanus, and it couldn’t feel more different from that cold, macho exploration of war, filmed with nervous energy. Here there’s a fluid, almost dreamy languor: long shots of fields under balmy sunlight; snatched glimpses of faces, as if rising unbidden from memory; and scenes composed with an almost painterly sensitivity. The story is told not so much through words as through exchanges of glances or things left unsaid. Suppressed desire crackles like static throughout the entire film.

But there’s a rather uncomfortable dynamic between Dickens and Nelly: the wealthy, authoritative older male and the young, naive admirer (the age difference between Fiennes and Jones, I’ve read, is almost the same as that between Dickens and Ternan). I couldn’t help wondering how much of all this was Nelly’s choice, and Jones is excellent at conveying Nelly’s wariness as she navigates her strange position. She’s attracted by Dickens’s talents as a writer; she is flattered by his attention; but how far does she actually want this relationship with him? Look at her reaction to Wilkie Collins’s happy domestic arrangement with Caroline Graves (Michelle Fairley), for example. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that Nelly is being offered up in the hope of gaining a more comfortable life for her family as a whole. Undoubtedly there are moments in which she genuinely feels love for Dickens but I found it telling that, despite the soft sunlight and lingering shots of their happiness together, there was always a hint of her being a sacrificial lamb.

The Invisible Woman

Catherine Dickens (Joanna Scanlan)

Speaking from a personal perspective, the film was also gripping because it veers into Original Idle Woman territory. Frances Dickinson appeared in the London performances of The Frozen Deep in June-July 1857 (under the pseudonym ‘Mrs Francis’), playing the role of Nurse Esther, after the original actress Mrs Wills hurt her leg. When the play moved from London to Manchester, however, to a larger theatre, Dickens felt that most of the ladies from the original cast might not be able to cope with the necessary projection of their voices. He doesn’t seem to have had any fears for Frances, however (she must have been rather ebullient), but she declined the opportunity to go north with them and so her role was taken over by Mrs Ternan. And the rest, as they say, is history. I’d half-hoped that Frances might have a cameo appearance in the film, but alas she doesn’t. She and Dickens continued to be friends for the rest of their lives, although few of their letters survive, thanks to Dickens’s bonfire of his correspondence at Gad’s Hill. In the film, as Ralph Fiennes strode about throwing bundles of letters into the flames, I silently glowered and thought, ‘Well, thank you very much, Mr Dickens: there goes my research…’

If you’re fond of period films, you should certainly seek this one out. Fiennes really is turning out to be a very interesting director, perhaps because he is so familiar with what’s necessary to coax strong performances from his cast. It all looks wonderful, but it’s so memorable because it doesn’t ever allow itself to sink into cosy Sunday-teatime Victorian nostalgia. It asks pertinent questions about the balance of authority in relationships, the social position of women, and about Dickens’s own reputation. It’s left me itching to read Tomalin’s book; though I do have another book on the subject on my ‘to read’ shelf: Michael Slater’s Great Charles Dickens Scandal. One way or another, Nelly Ternan might be cropping up again quite soon.

Buy the film

The Invisible Woman

Dickens (Ralph Fiennes)

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