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).
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.