Invisible Woman, The: Dickens as Flawed Man

Ever Since his stunning performance in “Schindler’s List,” exactly 20 years ago, Ralph Fiennes has established an estimable reputation as a fine, versatile British actor.  But what we did not know is that he is also a fine, versatile director.

I was vastly impressed with his feature directing debut, Coriolanus, a modern, dramatically vigorous adaptation of Shakespeare’s noted play.  In his sophomore endeavor, The Invisible Woman, he changes gears, genres, and centuries.

Some critics may fault the film for adopting a tasteful Masterpiece Theater approach, akin to the strategy used by most of Merchant-Ivory productions (A Room With a View, Howards End, etc). But the material is rich with literary allusions, emotional insights, and psychological ambiguities, not to mention the central performance by the beautiful and gifted Felicity Jones, who elevates this biopic above its trappings as a melodrama that deliberately paced and visually restrained.

Adapting a 1990 Ternan biogrphy by Claire Tomalin, screenwriter Abi Morgan, who had penned “Shame” and “The Iron Lady,” for which Meryl Streep won her third Oscar) frames the highly involving tale around two different but crucial stagings of Dickens plays.

Set in Margate, England in 1885, the tale begins with an image of a woman—later unveiled as Nelly Wharton Robinson– striding across a deserted beach. Isolated against the sea and sky, she walks in a way that suggests memories of the past that need to be relived and then forgotten—if possible.

Cut to a scene in a school hall, inhabited by young boys and Reverend William Benham (John Kavanagh), all waiting for Nelly (Felicity Jones) to return. They are rehearsing a production of a play called No Thoroughfare: A Drama in Five Acts written by Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Married to the school’s headmaster, George Wharton Robinson (Tom Burke), it’s not clear how happy or adjusted she is.  It seems that for Nelly, the rehearsals are igniting memories of a lost life that is still haunting her.

Nelly’s distracted mood has caught the attention of the kindly Benham, a Dickens enthusiast. Benham’s questions force her to revisit a chapter of her past, when her life was changed by a random but fateful meeting Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes).

Nelly, then called Ellen Ternan, is 18-years old and is performing with her mother, Mrs. Ternan (Kristin Scott Thomas), and sister Maria (Perdita Weeks), in Dickens’ adaptation of his friend Wilkie Collins’ (Tom Hollander) play, The Frozen Deep. Along with eldest daughter Fanny (Amanda Hale), the Ternans are a cultured family of touring actresses. Dickens is instantly drawn to these women, especially the young, beautiful and self-possessed Nelly.

At that time, Dickens is already established a famous man at the height of his career. His work is read throughout the English-speaking world, he reads it publicly to huge audiences, he campaigns tirelessly on behalf of the poor and enjoys life as a literary star. But his marriage is faltering. Catherine Dickens (Joanna Scanlan) has borne him 10 children but is now confined to the edge of his life, unappreciated and no longer loved. She is no match for Dickens’ forceful personality and he craves a woman who appreciates him and his work.

As the intense focus of Dickens’ desire, Nelly finds that her growing affection for him makes her emotionally and socially vulnerable. As Nelly and Dickens grow closer and the whispers of Victorian society become louder, the fears of those near to them intensify. Catherine Dickens is afraid of abandonment and ridicule, her children are distraught, and Mrs. Ternan is concerned for her daughter’s reputation if the affair is revealed.

When Nelly is introduced to Wilkie Collins’ “hidden” mistress Caroline Graves (Michelle Fairley), she begins to realize her playing a similar role for Dickens. She angrily confronts him, but she cannot disregard or ignore his passionate feelings for her. It’s clear that Dickens will never marry her, or allow his  readers to know of his secretive love. When Dickens and Nelly are involved in a tragic accident in which she is injured, Nelly is confronted with Dickens’ determination to keep her a secret. Accepting the painful reality, she begins an uneasy life as an “invisible woman.”

Now, the older Nelly finally speaks to Reverend Benham of the meanings of her relationship with Dickens, the price it has cost her, her new understanding of him and of herself as an artist and a woman.