Movie Review: The Invisible Woman
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
Gorgeous and painterly from its opening frames and directed with a sure hand by its star Ralph Fiennes, “The Invisible Woman” chronicles the complex and often deeply sad relationship between Charles Dickens and Ellen Lawless “Nelly” Ternan.
She was an 18-year-old actress who became the then-45-year-old writer’s mistress and hidden companion from about 1858 to his death in 1870 at the age of 58.
Written by Abi Morgan (“Shame”) and based on the 1991 book by journalist Claire Tomalin, “The Invisible Woman” is nonetheless, through 21st century eyes, slave to an irritating, cliched dynamic: The artist and celebrity, weary of his wife who has been with him since before he was famous, goes after a woman literally one year younger than his eldest daughter. Yawn.
But this is Charles Dickens, one of the legitimately great writers of his age. This is also Victorian England, where husband and wife barely saw each other naked. The relationship between Dickens and Ternan was scandalous beyond measure (hence Ternan’s status as “invisible”).
And it is important to recall that, by 1857, Dickens was an absolute literary rock star, a socially conscious author, journalist, fundraiser and philanthropist with the fame and audience of Stephen King combined with the literary cache of George Plimpton or Dave Eggers. (Much of the United Kingdom encountered Dickens in “Household Words,” the weekly magazine of fiction and essays he edited).
“Invisible Woman” opens, smartly, in the seaside town where Ternan lived after Dickens’ death. The affair is long over, Ternan’s husband, the kindly but dull schoolmaster (Tom Burke) knows only that Dickens knew the Ternan family when Nelly was a child. He finds her massive collection of “Household Words” slightly head-scratching and his novels grim: “One wonders what demons raged in his mind,” he says.
Indeed. Dickens (Fiennes, good but clearly focusing on two things at once) meets Nelly (Felicity Jones) in 1857, when he casts her, her mother and her sisters in a Manchester production of “The Frozen Deep,” a mediocre play that he is mounting with energetic running buddy and co-writer Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander).
Nelly is a lousy actress (Jones does a bang-up job acting “badly”), but Dickens is smitten. Nelly’s mother, Catherine (Kristin Scott Thomas) is not a dope — she knows that the acting life is difficult, especially if you’re not actually good at the family business, but she worries for Nelly’s reputation. Dickens swears he has no designs on it. (Well, keeping her publicly unacknowledged is one way to do it, I suppose.)
Though deeply in love with one another, their time together can never be public. After all, Dickens never completely divorced his wife, Catherine, with whom he had 10(!) children. Their relationship had become one of steely manners and sublimated disdain rather than passion. “You cannot keep it quiet forever,” Catherine says of his crush on Nelly.
“Yes, I can” Dickens replies with quiet cruelty.
Catherine (Joanna Scanlan,) who looks, not unintentionally, one suspects, exactly like Queen Victoria, is the other injured party here. She knows how Dickens works.
The scene where Catherine confronts Nelly with a misdirected piece of jewelry (which Dickens insisted Catherine deliver to its “rightful recipient”) is rough going, and Catherine lays it on the line: “You must share him with his public,” Catherine says with knowing sadness. “They will be the constant. In truth, he will never absolutely know which one he loves the most, you or them. I do not believe he knows himself.” Ouch, in every direction.
Dickens goes so far as to note his separation in print and make an almost Clintonian oath that there is nothing going on with Nelly, a scene that is somehow even more brutal.
Don’t go to “The Invisible Woman” looking for sex; virtually no bodices are ripped. And don’t go expecting wide dramatic flourishes. But do go for Rob Hardy’s cinematography, which makes exceptional use of natural light. And go for a complicated story about forbidden love at a time when falling from social grace was quite a long drop indeed.