Not content with helping to bring the wonderful recent sleeper hit Philomena to the big screen, Dutchess County-based film producer Carolyn Marks Blackwood has done it again, on a subtler scale, with The Invisible Woman. Based on an award-winning 1990 biography by Claire Tomalin, and directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes, this tale of the middle-aged Charles Dickens’ 13-year affair with the actress Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), a woman 27 years his junior, will please fans of historical costume drama but probably put action-movie fans to sleep – at least, until the runaway lovers get tossed about in a rather scary train wreck near the end of the movie.
Nonetheless, for art-house audiences, The Invisible Woman has a lot going for it: a little-known story about a 19th-century literary superstar, a fabulously talented cast, outstanding art direction and gorgeous cinematography. There’s a tableau of a tense crowd at a horserace, silhouetted against a wide sky and a fair pavilion topped with flapping banners, that will stick in my head for a long time. The film got nominated for a Best Costume Design Oscar, and for good reason: Tiny details of gentility-gone-shabby, like a worn-out pair of fine gloves on the hands of a working actress, disclose volumes about the socioeconomic divide in Victorian times that was such an important theme in Dickens’ writings.
With a screenplay by Abi Morgan, the film’s biggest problem is that it seems underwritten and a tad excessively tasteful. The tale is framed in flashback; and in the opening sequence, in which an older, married Nelly stomps briskly along a beach long after Dickens’ death, recalling to mind the unfolding of her relationship with the already-famous author, it’s unclear whether she’s as angry as she looks, or just tired of repressing the lurid details of her past. We never really find out, because altogether too much of this story is told in smoldering looks. A bit more exposition or frank dialogue might have been helpful.
This goes double in the scenes of Dickens’ and Ternan’s agonizingly long and decorous courtship. It’s plain from the way that Fiennes gazes at the 18-year-old youngest daughter of his old actress friend Kitty Ternan (Kristin Scott Thomas) that the ebullient author is irrevocably smitten; but it’s far less clear how she feels about him, beyond starstruck. In fact, it’s the ardor of Nelly’s appreciation for Dickens’ writing that grabs his notice, as much as her youthful beauty. And she seems to thrive under the warmth of that attention like a frost-wilted plant whisked into the balmy clime of a Victorian solarium.
That the two are soulmates on a collision course to have a torrid clandestine affair seems inevitable. Having grown up in a theatre family, Nelly Ternan probably wouldn’t have been totally sheltered in spite of the sexual repressiveness of the times. And her own mother is practical-minded enough to see that Nelly, the least talented of her daughters onstage, faces a more auspicious financial future as the kept woman of a Great Man who’s too public a figure to get a divorce. So it comes as something of a shock when Nelly goes a little ballistic with offended sensibilities when she’s introduced to Caroline Graves (Game of Thrones star Michelle Fairley, all cleaned up from the Red Wedding), the live-in mistress of Dickens’ close friend and sometime collaborator Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander), author of The Woman in White and The Moonstone.
It makes little sense at this point that she didn’t see which way the wind was blowing. Her subsequent quick turnaround and acceptance of Dickens’ courtship – especially after she witnesses how he humiliates his wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan) by making her hand-deliver a piece of jewelry that he bought for Nelly, and that was delivered to Catherine in error – seems equally inexplicable.
Considering that this is a film about someone renowned for his use of words, it seems almost mulishly contrary for the screenwriter and director to have invested so much of the narrative in showing rather than telling, and it doesn’t always work. It’s almost as if they felt the need to be as “Victorian” as the Victorians allegedly were (and probably weren’t, entirely). Decorous in every sense of the word, this is a movie where, when people finally do have sex, they do it silently, with nearly all their clothes on, and show passion primarily in the form of flushed cheeks.
To be fair, the fine actors involved in this production do their level best within the constraints of the overly lean script. Fiennes brings Dickens vividly to life as both a bon vivant and a humanitarian, who simultaneously revels in and suffers under the weight of his public acclaim. And Jones handles her sometimes-inexplicable pressure-cooker of a character well. But we almost want to root more for Scanlan as Dickens’ dignified, long-suffering wife. Though she regards Charles’ writings as mere popular entertainment that pays the bills, she has grown fat popping out ten children for him before being discarded in favor of a younger, prettier woman who understands the artist’s soul in a way that Catherine simply cannot. She may be a Philistine, but we feel her pain nonetheless.
The Invisible Woman ostensibly tells the story of this long-hidden romance from the woman’s point of view, but in the long run it’s the female lead about whom we come out feeling like we know the least. As an exercise in depicting one of the heroes of the English literary pantheon as a flesh-and-blood man with relatable strengths and weaknesses, it’s far more of a cinematic success.