sat 15/06/2024

The Invisible Woman | reviews, news & interviews

The Invisible Woman

The Invisible Woman

Ralph Fiennes's second directorial outing reveals the secret lover of Charles Dickens

Old curiosity: Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones star as Charles Dickens and his secret lover Nelly

Delve into the personal life of Charles Dickens and she emerges, revealing another side of an author whose stories seem so wholesome. According to The Invisible Woman author Claire Tomalin, Ralph Fiennes’ film about Charles Dickens’ secret mistress is very different from the book upon which it is based.

Scripted by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady and Shame), The Invisible Woman, in which Fiennes stars and well as directs, gives us a more complex view of Dickens-as-man, albeit through a dark lens, literally and metaphorically.

Ellen Lawless Ternan (Felicity Jones) lived from 1839 to 1914, yet almost sunk without trace. She is mentioned in Dickens’s diary with an initial "N". Once Nelly married, she existed as a wife thereafter. One of three Ternan actress daughters (the others are played by Perdita Weeks and Amanda Hale) aided by a widowed mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), Nelly caught the very married, very fertile author’s eye and, eventually, heart. Like almost all married men, Dickens never divorced his wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan, pictured below, who gives a searing, understated performance), keeping Nelly hidden, financially reliant while also helping him with his work. The film relates their meeting and secret life together. The ending, memorably handled, is perhaps the film's most spectacular scene in a procession of subtleties.

Shown as more charmer than cad, Dickens here is, at best, brilliant, witty and, at least superficially, initially caring. At worst, he is weak  – an emotional coward unable to honour his lover, giving preferential treatment to his family and career. He is egotistical and insecure – a cake-and-eat-it type. As the vicar points out early in the film, any man who writes about life as vividly as Dickens must have lived quite a lot of it. Despite appearances, Dickens is not such a nice guy.

For his second feature after the successful Coriolanus, Fiennes was only going to direct The Invisible Woman. Given his resemblance to Dickens, it's a wise move to play him too. Fiennes, Jones and Scanlan give exceptional performances, as Dickens, Nelly and the vastly wise Mrs Dickens respectively. Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Hollander, Tom Burke and Michelle Fairley give the film a lot of backbone: Wilkie Collins, Dicken’s eldest son Charley, Mrs Ternan and her daughters need the best actors to bring them to life. Supported by stunning period locations, sets, wardrobe, hair and makeup, The Invisible Woman ticks along at an easy-to-follow pace. Rob Hardy's cinematography, however, seems lit by fatty candlelight, giving the film the patina of an uncleaned painting. Overall, however, The Invisible Woman is a memorable, beautiful story of love that exalts and dismays us.

Overleaf: watch the trailer to The Invisible Woman

Despite appearances, Dickens is not such a nice guy


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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