Film

The Invisible Woman

An affair for the ages

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

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 also 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 Nelly was all-important, the difference between success and failure. 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, Nelly 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 from his previous effort, Coriolanus. (Really, the only similarity between Coriolanus and The Invisible Woman is that both show Fiennes is a superb director of himself, neither self-effacing nor in love with his own image.) 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 Nelly 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 Dickens-Ternan 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, not only in his own time, but for future generations, but never be happy himself? Maybe that was exactly what Dickens was supposed to do, but it’s no easy thing to expect of anyone.

In the two-person scenes between Jones and Fiennes, Nelly 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 Nelly’s mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) expresses, to the secrets Nelly must keep in later life. Throughout, the beauty of Jones’ performance is that Nelly seems to understand it all, not just Dickens and his art, but the distance between the real truth and what truths can be spoken.

As such, The Invisible Woman is a strong movie about a young woman who makes a choice and then lives with it, accepting the reality of knowing all and yet having to stay invisible.

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