There are two candidates for the title character of “The Invisible Woman,” the drama about an affair Charles Dickens carried on for the last 13 years of his life.
The first is Ellen Ternan (Felicity Jones); he meets her in 1857, when he’s 45 and she’s 18, and he hides her from the prying eyes of society until his death 13 years later. The second is Catherine Dickens (Joanna Scanlan), who bore him 10 children and then endured marital neglect and separation until he died.
Ralph Fiennes’ second effort as director moves at the stately pace we associate with Victorian England. Once you get used to long gazes, quiet conversation and suppressed emotions, the movie has the right tone. Dickens’ novels brim with life and action but have reflective segments. This film, adapted by Abi Morgan from Claire Tomalin’s novel, might be one.
Because it comes from a novel, it takes many liberties with truth. We see Catherine physically separated from her husband by a carpenter who seems to be walling her up, as he closes off her section of their home. In reality, he and she simply stayed away from each other, until she moved out of the house in 1858. (They never divorced. Bizarrely, her sister Georgina moved in with Dickens and became unofficial mother to his children, though we don’t see that here.)
Yet the psychology seems right. Dickens (played by Fiennes) seems to be drawn first to the young admirer of his writing and later to the virgin who begins to feel physical passion. Ellen disapproves of sex outside marriage – she snubs Dickens’ friend, Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander), because he has a child with his mistress – but the quiet teenager is drawn to the magnetic author.
At this point, Dickens was probably the most famous man in England outside the royal family, and he exerts a spell on everyone outside his own family. Even Ellen’s mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), an actress struggling to support three daughters, offers only token opposition to Ellen’s life as a kept woman.
In the end, we spend more time with Ellen than her suitor. The story begins in 1883, when she has married the headmaster of a high school. He obviously loves and respects her, but she struggles to get emotional closure in her feelings for Dickens, who died 13 years before. As her memories surface, the story flashes back and forth from her past to her present.
Both leading actors blow hot and cold, though they’re frequently on target. Fiennes isn’t naturally an outgoing performer, and he’s playing the most extroverted author in English history. So he does his best work in intimate moments, when Dickens finds himself at a loss for words.
Jones, who played Fiennes’ daughter four years ago in “Cemetery Junction,” sometimes seems bland or even sullen as the closed-off teenager. Yet she shows spirit, intelligence and emotional depth as the older Ellen, and we see then what Dickens presumably saw long ago.
The film earned an Oscar nomination for its costumes, which make effects subtly: The unfortunate Catherine wears dresses that aren’t obviously ugly but make her look more like a stout, stolid stick-in-the-mud. Music, cinematography and editing reinforce the mood of melancholy anxiety the director sought.
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