Invisible Woman tells of Charles Dickens' hidden lover

Ralph Fiennes directs and stars in this Victorian era period piece

Tuesday January 21, 2014 04:00 am EST

The Invisible Woman is not an action movie about an X-Men-style mutant but a dramatic account of the real life of Ellen "Nelly" Ternan, the young actress who became the mistress of an unhappily married Charles Dickens. Dickens himself lived very much in the public eye, but Ternan, 27 years his junior, remained so hidden that she was all but erased from public memory. Author and historian Claire Tomalin sought to reconstruct a portrait of Ternan's life and 13-year relationship with Dickens. The new film, based on Tomalin's 1990 book and sharing its title, is the second directorial effort by actor Ralph Fiennes after 2011's very fine Coriolanus.

Fiennes also takes on the role of Dickens, and he's especially skilled at conveying a sense of Dickens' effortless charm and childlike enthusiasms, which are balanced — and perhaps made even more attractive — by a sense of his growing world-weariness, even misanthropy. Cinematograper Rob Hardy accomplishes something extraordinary by giving the film a sumptuous period look that never seems overly fussy, precious, or affected; he has an understanding of Victorian spaces, the creaky theaters, rocky high roads, opulent drawing rooms, shaky carriages, and cramped flats that become the public stages and all-too-rare private spaces where the drama plays out. Felicity Jones brings a smart, modern sensibility to what could easily have become an empty feminist take on dull Victorian forbearance. There is existential awareness about her condition, its injustices as well as its advantages. Jones and Fiennes don't exactly create white-hot romantic sparks, but they do give a beautiful sense of the pair's tortured and tentative approach to the affair, a few stolen happy moments, the inevitable challenges, and final dissolution.

Dickens was one of the first people to become famous in the modern sense, and his enormous artistic talent is one of the forces that draws Jones' Ternan to him, but his fame ironically becomes one of the central forces pulling them apart. In one of the film's best scenes, the couple must pretend to be strangers after the train they're riding on derails. At the end of the film, when Ternan finally unburdens her heart about the secret affair by confessing to a priest, she doesn't weep for her lost love, her sin, or the lies she's told (it's not mentioned in the film as such, but after Dickens' death, the real Ternan presented herself as 14 years younger than she really was to a young man who became her husband), she weeps instead for the altered ending of Great Expectations. Even the priest (an unintentionally creepy John Kavanagh) turns out to be a bit of a star-fucker, yammering on about Dickens' greatness. The end of the film shows Ternan settling into an unremarkable, prosaic, but understandably happier private life.

Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas made one of the most memorable romantic couples in film history when they appeared together in the 1996 Oscar-winning film The English Patient, so it's curious to see them reunited on screen 18 years later in very different roles. Here, Fiennes remains the romantic lead, while Thomas takes on the part of the careworn matron. Future historians and filmmakers can perhaps dramatically reconstruct the invisible but significant moment when one of the most beautiful and talented actresses of our time was asked to play the ingenue's mother opposite her former leading man.

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