Unpicking Dickens’ illicit affair with a girl half his age, Ralph Fiennes’ The Invisible Woman brings a strong woman out from behind the novelist’s shadow.
The Invisible Woman
End Of The Affair by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
After taking on Shakespeare’s violent avenger in Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes turns his attention to Charles Dickens for his second film. And concentrating on the novelist’s middle years as stage director and actor, it’s perhaps a perfect fit. But above all, it’s the writer’s adulterous affair with Ellen Ternan that takes centre stage in The Invisible Woman as Fiennes unpicks the untold tale of his secret relationship with Nelly. Based on the novel by Claire Tomalin, the story is framed by Nelly’s confessions to a Margate vicar in 1883, as she marches at a feverish pace up and down the beach. As both Dickens and Ternan burned all their love letters, his is the only testimony to piece together their 13 years together lived in secrecy. But while The Invisible Woman coolly reflects on the close-lipped mystery of love, opening with a quotation from the great raconteur himself – “A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other”, it’s to the invisible woman in the great man’s shadow that Fiennes’ film gives the starring role.
Wife and mother Nelly (Felicity Jones) is staging the play No Thoroughfare at her husband’s boys’ school in Margate, where in talks up and down the beach with Reverend Benham (John Kavanagh) she recounts her romance with Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes). She was by all accounts the inspiration for Lucie Manette in The Tale Of Two Cities after they made acquaintance when Charles Dickens cast 18-year-old Nelly in Manchester along with her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and sister (Perdita Weeks) in his play co-written with Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander) The Frozen Deep. And amid the greasepaint charms of the Northern stage and the high-stake joys of the Doncaster Races, the celebrated playwright and the beautiful ingénue forge a friendship that borders on romance. Accelerating quickly from the expensive birthday gift of a ruby bracelet to a nuzzling intimacy, it’s a love that threatens to ruin both of them, should their illicit affair go public.
With beautiful cinematography from DOP Rob Hardy, there’s a beautiful patina to Ralph Fiennes’ The Invisible Woman with its Victorian merrymaking of theatre, singing, dancing and conjuring tricks, as well as icons of the great novelist himself – books, pens and notes standing in for both the writer’s great standing and literary calling. It’s filled with Dickensian faces, but without the grotesque caricatures that undermine most Dickens adaptations. And while we’re not exactly privy to Dickens’ most intimate and private moments – this is Nelly’s story after all – we are treated to an exposé of 19th century celebrity in which Dickens is constantly on show and which could be torn apart by scandal at any moment. A threat which banishes the lovers to France, to live as Mr and Mrs Charles Tringham, and which causes the novelist to abandon his mistress in a train crash (but not his latest manuscript).
Despite some great performances by Fiennes and Scott Thomas, unusually for this kind of reported narrative, it’s the framing story that holds the attention most – no doubt due in no small part to Felicity Jones’ incredibly intensity. She’s a soulful, distracted woman who walks out her pain along the seafront each morning; a kind of proto-cinema as the burdened bearer of a precious love, a secret given to her to look after, recounts a chapter in her life now shored up in extreme close-ups and swaying reeds – as if hearing it spoken brings it alive. With Victorian upstanding, honest and true Nelly does her utmost during their affair to keep her most-prized reputation spotless, caught between keeping their romance secret and the troubling realisation that she has become Dickens’ Windsor whore. And the two lovers nuzzle at each other’s presence like moths – with budding lips but no kiss.
The film’s great extratextual coup is to lend a feminist spin to Great Expectations, reimagining the futureless love between Estella and Pip as Estella’s realisation that she will never be his, living only in his shadow. While Dickens’ illicit liaison with Ternan may have in part inspired his most adapted novel, Fiennes’ film is also filled with this haunting sense of personal secrets that both bring us together and keep us apart. But The Invisible Woman is a surprisingly dour lesson in excising ghosts; it prizes a woman’s control over her emotions, but the film itself remains too controlled – disappointingly flat, cold and loveless. Nevertheless, in a world in which man decides and women follow, Fiennes offers a Victorian heroine who sees a freedom beyond the grasp of men. And while it might be domestic, away from the limelight of celebrity and fame, it’s a blissful kind of quiet all the same.
The Invisible Woman is released on 7th February 2013 in the UK