The Invisible Woman

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We often acknowledge Charles Dickens as one of the finest writers of the 19th Century. Certainly he was one of the most influential, developing the three volume novel as a work both of art and entertainment, and the novelist as a celebrity and public figure with moral and ethical responsibility to his public. Like many great public figures, though, Dickens’s private life was less than stellar, wrapped up in Victorian social and sexual mores. He was, in short, no better than most people, and at times perhaps a great deal worse.

The Invisible Woman claims to tell the story of Dickens’s semi-public relationship with Ellen Ternan, a young actress whose relationship with Dickens would last the rest of his life. Because of both the extreme secrecy of the relationship – Dickens was still married – and the fact that Dickens burned his entire correspondence with Ternan, the actual circumstances of much of their relationship remains largely hearsay and speculation. Dickens had already engaged in a fairly public infatuation with his wife Catherine’s sister Mary earlier in his life, and it is true that he separated from his wife around the same time he’s believed to be involved with Ternan. As with most biographical or semi-biographical films, The Invisible Woman should probably not be taken as “the truth,” but rather a speculative version of it.

The film opens with the first appearance of Ellen “Nelly” Ternan (Felicity Jones), long after her affair with Dickens has ended. A married woman, she still harbors fond and not-so-fond memories of the man she loved. The film rolls us back to their first meeting during a production of The Frozen Deep, a joint play by Dickens (Ralph Fiennes, who also directs) and Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander). Nelly is the youngest in a family of actresses headed by Frances Ternan (Kristin Scott Thomas); she’s also the least talented, with difficulty projecting beyond the footlights. She and Dickens share an immediate attraction and rapport, however, and their relationship progresses from a great man and his acolyte to a great man and his somewhat recalcitrant mistress.

The Invisible Woman thankfully avoids some of the cliches that could have marred its project. Fiennes’s Dickens is not a seducer, but neither is he wholly sympathetic – he’s a talented author and celebrated philanthropist who cannot bear not to be adored. His attraction to Nelly is both that of an older man falling for an attractive younger woman who obviously venerates him, and as a man who believes he’s found someone who understands him. His treatment of his long-suffering wife (Joanna Scanlan) is reprehensible, yet we do not fully condemn his character. The whole plot becomes bound in the mores of Victorian society, which permits a man to have an affair but condemns the woman with whom he has it.

Felicity Jones plays Nelly as a woman in a relationship she both desires and wishes to end. All but sold by her mother, who believes she will never be able to support herself as an actress, Nelly falls for Dickens but does not really wish to be his mistress, condemned by the culture that surrounds her. A painful scene between Nelly and Catherine Dickens shows both women as victims of their society. They caught in love for a man who will always, as Catherine says, choose his public above any woman.

If The Invisible Woman fails anywhere, it is in the somewhat lax use of the framing narrative. This is meant to be something of a flashback and something of a mystery. There’s a lack of clarity in the connection between Nelly’s persistent unhappiness in her current life and her complicated experiences in the past. Jones plays even the younger Nelly as a somewhat unhappy and certainly a troubled young woman, giving her little space to change over the course of the narrative. While I never doubted her passion for Dickens was sincere, I did doubt its depth – she seems to worship him as a writer, conflating the man and the public figure. As such, the emotional connection between them feels shallow where it should, in my view, have been more complicated. The ending of the film is abrupt and a little unsatisfying, as though there was no way to bring the narrative to any kind of a round conclusion for either character.

Despite one or two shortcomings, however, The Invisible Woman is one of the better semi-biographical films about the time period. The Victorian era tends to either be romanticized or treated with undue harshness on film – The Invisible Woman avoids these pitfalls by approaching its characters as human beings, good people who sometimes behave badly. At the heart is the mystery of the human experience, and a sense of both profound joy and deep melancholy. When looked at in that light, one might imagine that Charles Dickens would be proud.

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