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He Was the Best of Men, He Was the Worst of Men

by Ann Morrow on February 10, 2014 · 2 comments

The Invisible Woman
Directed by Ralph Fiennes


Charles Dickens, the writer: charming, witty, the life of every party, and so magnetic that he was in huge demand as a speaker. In The Invisible Woman, this Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) is marvelous company, and his compassion for the poor and downtrodden amply ameliorates his often ceaseless, even ruthless, striving for the limelight. However, this film isn’t so much about Dickens as it is his scandalous affair with a much younger woman, Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones).

The Invisible Woman

Nelly is 18 when she meets Dickens, in a farcical stage production he is collaborating on with his friend Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander). And Dickens with Nellie soon becomes a sodden process of unhappy events that the ebullient novelist would’ve excised from his own prose. The script, by the excellent Abi Morgan, adapting from Claire Tomalin’s well-regarded biography, falters when it comes to portraying Dickens’ enduring passion for Nelly. And Nelly, apparently, was not as passionate about Dickens the man—he was 45 when they met—as she was about Dickens the rich and famous writer. A heart-rending romance this is not, despite an emphasis on Jones’ luminously brooding visage and a romantically constructed framing device using a sympathetic vicar many years later.

All the buoyant life of the film’s early scenes, in the theater and the street, where Dickens plays to his audiences, along with his flamboyant ingratiation into the Ternan family of widowed mother and three actress daughters, seeps away as his affair with Nelly, the youngest, progresses. The social dynamics of the time (and in Dickens’ circle particularly), are much more vivid while he interacts with this abundantly feminine family. Kristin Scott Thomas as Nelly’s widowed mother is still glamorous enough that you wonder why Dickens didn’t just have an affair with her and save himself the public scrutiny; smartly, however, this also exposes that Dickens was something of a lech. Meanwhile the gracious widow practically pushes Nelly, her least talented daughter, into Dickens’ arms to alleviate their genteel poverty.

Catherine (Joanna Scanlon), Dickens’ wife and mother of his 10 children, is cruelly discarded; even so, their faded marriage hints at more complexity than is shown in his secret liaison with Nelly. Not much was known about her, and even less about their relationship, of which the script’s enigmatic rendering is less than satisfying. The film’s direction is accurate, the costuming is superb, the art direction evocative, and its discretion admirable, and yet Nelly’s life with the most popular writer of his time subsides into mere mediocrity. Then again, perhaps no film can quite get around how the spotlight always shines brightest for Dickens.



Tim Haslett April 20, 2014 at 8:46 pm

” a sodden process of unhappy events that the ebullient novelist would’ve excised from his own prose” – wish I’d written that! Your phrase pretty much sums up the film which as you imply becomes more sodden as it goes on. I agree completely with the fact that we really get no sense of Nellie’s infatuation with Dickens or even her passion for his writing. I also found it irritating that the relationship between Nelly and Dickens was linked to that of Pip and Estella. In fact the comparison only confuses things. I also found the parallel time-shifted plots unnecessary. Given that nearly seemed to extract so little pleasure from relationship with Dickens it’s hard to understand the existential links that followed later. Even less comprehensible was her rapid recovery after her confession.

Tim Haslett April 20, 2014 at 8:47 pm

Given that nearly seemed

Nearly = Nelly