Ralph Fiennes eased into directing in 2011 with an action version of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, reprising a role he had played onstage. For his second film, The Invisible Woman, he has created something smaller in scale but far more nuanced. The subject is the affair between the great 19th-century novelist Charles Dickens, and an actress almost 30 years his junior. And while the whole thing is Victorian to the flower-patterned mantlepieces and oil-lamp lighting, this is a living, breathing portrait of people caught by familiar emotions and imprisoning social codes.
Fiennes himself plays Dickens, at 45, in the bushy beard, receding hairline period. As well as a literary giant, he was a beloved celebrity with a personal bond of affection with his fans. While he idealized the family in his work, he chafed under the constraints of his domestic life and ties to his dowdy wife and mother of his 10 children. While Fiennes, in front of the camera, does a fine job of embodying Dickens, a social dynamo with a tumultuous inner life, the spotlight in The Invisible Woman is on the title character, Ellen “Nelly” Ternan (Felicity Jones).
Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady) who adapted Claire Tomalin’s bestselling 1990 biography of Ternan, avoids the usual episodic structure of a biographical drama: Instead, it’s a story framed by two stage productions. We begin in Margate, England, in 1883, where Ellen, married to a fellow teacher, is coaching a boy’s school production of No Thoroughfare, written by Dickens and his protégé, Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander). Her fellow teachers know when she was as a child her family was friends with the Dickens and her husband brags about the family connection. But the school’s vicar (John Kavanagh) perceives that Nelly is emotionally troubled. She also goes for long walks on the beach a lot.
During one of those walks, she goes into a reverie that takes her back to her meeting with Dickens, in 1857, at a Manchester production of Collins’s play, The Frozen Deep, a melodrama about the doomed Franklin expedition. Ternan was the youngest of three daughters in an acting family, “she’s got something,” declares Dickens after she performs a slightly stilted monologue.
What she has is poise, intelligence, beauty and baby-cheeked youth, though not any conspicuous acting talent. Nelly’s widowed mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) is troubled but calculating about the famed man’s fascination with her youngest daughter: “Our profession is hard enough even if you have talent,” she laments to Nelly’s older sister, adding that “Charles Dickens is not just some opportunist.” In keeping with propriety, she warns Dickens that she cannot allow him to harm her daughter’s reputation; in effect, a deal is brokered.
Certainly, this is no simple love story: The movie’s most intimate scene, tellingly, takes place when Dickens and Nelly spend the night together counting money from a charity benefit performance, while Nelly’s mother pretends to doze on a nearby sofa. Dickens is genuinely besotted by Nelly, to the point where he’s appallingly cruel to his wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan, an actress best known for her work in British television comedy), who emerges as a dignified, tragic figure. In his desire to have his mistress and protect his reputation, he’s ruthless, burning his correspondence with Nelly and declaring his separation from his wife, not in person, but in a letter to the newspaper.
In one of those typically strong English casts of supporting actors is Jones (who played Miranda in Julie Taymor’s The Tempest, and will be next seen onscreen in The Amazing Spider-Man 2). You might describe her this way: “a short, slight, pretty figure, a quantity of golden hair, a pair of blue eyes that met his own with an inquiring look, and a forehead with a singular capacity, of lifting and knitting itself into an expression that was not quite one of perplexity, or wonder, or alarm, or merely of a bright fixed attention, though it included all the four expressions.” That’s actually Dickens’s description of Lucie Manette, the archetypal figure of compassion in A Tale of Two Cities, written when Ternan was his mistress. Jones’s eyes are green, but otherwise the description fits.
Not until Nelly is much older (the change in age is conveyed by her bearing and clothes, not bad prosthetics) does she begin to come to terms with that large blank spot on her resumé, the decade of her life she spent in hiding, a child dead in infancy, a partner who visited rather than lived with her. In one wrenching scene, based on a real-life train accident (the 1865 Staplehurst train derailment that left 10 dead and 40 injured) Dickens, after pulling himself from the wreckage, frantically makes sure his mistress is secreted away in a coach to London before he turns to comfort the wounded.
The Invisible Woman is, fair warning, leisurely in its pace. The train crash is one of two scenes where Fiennes shows some real directorial flourish, and while his work behind the camera is unlikely to overshadow his work in front of it, there’s a display of confidence and simplicity that’s first rate. The second set piece is a happier event, a horse race at Doncaster. In one long take we see the young Nelly as Dickens saw her, standing on a horse cart, slightly above the crowd against a clear sky, watching the race in youthful exhilaration, a period painting come to life and a frozen moment of happiness.