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The Invisible Woman
Left to right: Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens and Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan Photo by David Appleby, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Movie Review: The Invisible Woman

Ralph Fiennes goes behind-and-in front of the camera to play Charles Dickens in “The Invisible Woman.” Jeanne has her take.

Sony Pictures Classics
(111 minutes)
Directed by Ralph Fiennes

Starring Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones and Kristen Scott Thomas

Studio Synopsis:
At the height of his career, Charles Dickens meets a younger woman who becomes his secret lover until his death. THE INVISIBLE WOMAN is a Sony Pictures Classics release, runs for 111 minutes, is in English, and is MPAA rated R for some sexual content.

Nelly (Felicity Jones), a happily-married mother and schoolteacher, is haunted by her past. Her memories, provoked by remorse and guilt, take us back in time to follow the story of her relationship with Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) with whom she discovered an exciting but fragile complicity. Dickens – famous, controlling and emotionally isolated within his success – falls for Nelly, who comes from a family of actors. The theatre is a vital arena for Dickens – a brilliant amateur actor – a man more emotionally coherent on the page or on stage, than in life. As Nelly becomes the focus of Dickens’ passion and his muse, for both of them secrecy is the price, and for Nelly a life of “invisibility”.

[youtuber youtube=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OV77JsmAAAo’]
The Invisible Woman

Director Ralph Fiennes
Photo by David Appleby, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Jeanne’s Take:
“The Invisible Woman” was featured at the New York, Telluride and Toronto film festivals in 2013.  Nelly Lawless Ternan was that invisible woman, a vital part of Charles Dickens’ last decade, and she was a closely guarded secret from the time of his death in 1870 until his last child died in 1933.

British novelist Charles Dickens, married with children, had a love affair.  He and Nelly Ternan met when he was 45 and she was 18.   Discovering the details took a lot of sleuthing and research.  More importantly, the film version of Claire Tomalin’s prize-winning biography has captured those moments admirably.

Dickens shocked his reading public when he separated from his wife of 25 years, Catherine, the mother of his nine children, and announced his decision in a letter to the Times of London and other newspapers.    His friends helped to keep Dickens’ secret relationship from the public.  After his early death, Nelly was able to apply all she had learned from her worldly lover, and so retained a respected façade for the rest of her life. Keeping secret her twelve-year relationship with Dickens was her finest performance as a member of a distinguished acting family.

Actor Ralph Fiennes plays Charles Dickens in a mesmerizing performance, and also directs this delicious period film.  Abi Morgan wrote the screenplay from Claire Tomalin’s groundbreaking book.  Kristin Scott Thomas is Mrs. Frances Ternan, a well-established stage performer with three daughters following in her footsteps.  Stage plays were popular in Dickens’ time, and families of actors made a living during “the season,” performing dramas adapted from his popular serialized novels as well as the works of others.  Given the sexual double standards of the time, Mrs. Ternan kept a close watch on her daughters so that no one could endanger their social standing.  Her youngest daughter, still new to the stage, was Nelly, played to perfection by Felicity Jones.  And Dickens could not stay away from her.

As the film opens, Nelly has become “Ellen,” is married to Oxford graduate George Robinson, and well established as a teacher and drama coach in her husband’s school for boys.  However, she is consumed with memories.  When those memories seem to overwhelm, she takes long walks on a deserted beach and her 12 years with Dickens come flooding back.

The Invisible Woman

Left to right: Perdita Weeks as Maria Ternan, Amanda Hale as Fanny Ternan, Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan and Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Ternan
Photo by David Appleby, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The world of theatre, the life of actors, the almost nonstop celebrations of writers and musicians as they live the lives of artists working late into the night – we are drawn in and fascinated.  And especially do we see the love that England’s citizens have for Dickens’ literary output.  They flock to his featured readings, purchase his serialized stories, and line up to buy tickets for stage performances.  He loves to write, to perform, to receive his audiences.  Yet with all he has, he cannot satisfy his restless energy.  And so begins a great subterfuge lasting 12 years.

Ralph Fiennes as Dickens and Felicity Jones as Nelly are joined by Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Ternan and Joanna Scanlan as Mrs. Catherine Dickens in performances which vividly recreate a time when the public eye was turned on a popular writer who had to fit a certain public image, and who took extreme measures to be certain he could be all things to everyone – except his wife Catherine – and do what he liked.

If you like BBC productions and remember loving “Masterpiece Theater,” and/or if you appreciate Charles Dickens, you will enjoy this film experience.  Victorian England held many secrets, and this is one of its more intriguing hidden stories.

About Jeanne Powell

Jeanne Powell is a poet and short story writer, who teaches in a summer program for teens. Her most recent books are "My Own Silence" and "Word Dancing," available online and through booksellers. She also hosts spoken word events in San Francisco, and covers cultural happenings for online media.