Actor-turned-director Ralph Fiennes takes the director’s chair again for The Invisible Woman, having previously helmed 2011’s Coriolanus. Based on the book by Claire Tomalin, the film tells the story of an 18-year-old actress named Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones) as she wins the heart of Charles Dickens (Fiennes, acting as well as directing) – despite the fact that he is already married. To prevent this affair from becoming a scandal, Dickens must keep his relationship with Nelly away from the public eye: she will have to be an invisible woman.
Fiennes makes a superb Dickens, portraying a popular writer and talented stage actor at the height of his fame. He brings to his role the energetic charm of a game show host or stand-up comedian, creating an effortlessly charismatic figure who becomes the centre of attention wherever he goes. Even a viewer who has never read a Dickens novel will be able to see how such an extravagant and outgoing character could become a national sensation.
By depicting Dickens as a figure of celebrity worship, mobbed by adoring fans oblivious to the shadier aspects of his personal life, the film touches upon a topical issue. The recent revelations regarding Jimmy Savile and the ongoing controversy surrounding Woody Allen are particularly grotesque manifestations of a longstanding phenomenon: in real life behind the beloved public personas of countless well known and respected celebrities we find numerous beaten wives and neglected children, stories that many people would rather ignore as they enjoy the glitz and glamour of the entertainment industry.
This is not to say that Charles Dickens is used as the story’s villain, however. The film is ultimately on the side of the novelist, following him closely as he strives for a satisfactory solution to his dilemma. His cold indifference towards his wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan) is contrasted with his genuine affection for Nelly; and when he casts an appalled look across the slums of London, donating money to a young prostitute so that she can spend the night at home, we catch a glimpse of the Dickens who championed social issues in novels such as Oliver Twist.
While Fiennes’ Dickens dominates the screen, the film’s nominal protagonist Nelly tends to retreat into the background. Between staring wistfully out of windows and crumpling grief-stricken in elaborate dresses, she often comes across as a collection of images rather than a character with individual agency. In stark contrast to her extroverted lover, Nelly is portrayed as a deeply repressed individual who speaks in careful lines of stiff, formal dialogue; some of the most memorable moments of Jones’ performance involve close-ups of her face, repeatedly twitching as a smile or a sob threaten to break through her measured composure.
It is also worth noting the second invisible woman, Catherine Dickens. Middle-aged and portly, she is ignored not only by her husband but by just about everyone else in her life; a particularly telling moment comes when Charles accidentally walks in on his wife naked. “Oh, Catherine”, he remarks before closing the door – he sounds not shocked, but disappointed. Later on, Charles commissions a piece of jewellery for Nelly and has Catherine present it as a gift, which she does with resignation – almost as though she is passing on the baton as the main woman in the novelist’s life.
Eventually, Charles declares his separation from Catherine through the public medium of a letter to a newspaper. Catherine breaks down into anguished tears when she hears the news – and this is when she departs from the narrative of the film, taking with her a potentially fascinating story of her own. But then, in theory at least, The Invisible Woman is meant to be the story of Nelly Ternan.
Fiennes’ directorial style is competent but understated, content to sit back and allow the story to unfold at a leisurely pace. He is interested less in displaying the sweeping scope of Victorian England and instead crafting delicate compositions: the world of Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan comes across as a system of interconnected drawing rooms, dimly lit by roaring fires, the inhabitants picked out in sumptuous shades of rose and gold. The film has a rich, almost painterly eye for detail.
The Invisible Woman is a sedate picture, one that keeps a low-key approach as it focuses on the slowly-developing relationship between its leads. Charles Dickens’ novels are known for their sprawling casts of characters; when it comes to his real life, however, a captivating story can be told around just two.