History, they say, is written by the victors. Indeed, popular English novelist Charles Dickens was a winner who jealously protected his legacy. But don't they also say the truth will out? As adapted from Claire Tomalin's revealing 1991 biography, Ralph Fiennes' fascinating film The Invisible Woman looks behind the curtain at the whispered-about mistress Dickens never publicly acknowledged.
Fiennes' film takes the point of view of its title character, Ellen "Nelly" Ternan (Felicity Jones). When the film opens, Dickens has been dead for thirteen years, and a married Nelly has settled into a life as a teacher at the High School in Margate. But her long walks on the beach betray a psychic unrest: clad head to toe in heavy black Victorian dress, Nelly finds cold comfort in these walks, which tip off the local vicar (John Kavanagh) that something is amiss. Memories unfold, transporting us back to 1857 and Nelly's first encounter with Dickens (Fiennes). On hearing teenage Nelly recite the epilogue of a play he's co-written, Dickens remarks, "She has something," but that something isn't sustainable acting talent. Rather it is a spark of attractiveness in her beauty and her character. It doesn't take long for Nelly's mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) to read the signs, and understand the opportunity Dickens represents for her daughter of dwindling promise.
Dickens' co-playwright Wilkie Collins sums up his friend: "He is a good man trying to be a good man, but he is a great man." Known for his family values as a husband and father of ten, Dickens also pursues social justice through charitable works. But any interest in his wife Catherine (a memorable Joanna Scanlan) has long since dissipated, and a flame begins to burn for Nelly. So begins a long, complex mating dance, with the deep-thinking Nelly attracted to the great writer and improved prospects but cursed by having to share him with his family and his public, and endure her gender's second-class social status.
Fiennes' understated film, expertly scripted by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady), stands confidently on a firm foundation of historical detail and depths of emotional understanding. Soft-lit elegance and exquisite period detail capture the Victorian era in more ways than one: the stately trappings help to tamp down the emotions so obviously yearning to break free of social mores and economic strictures and psychological repression.
Crucially, we stay at the side of the conflicted Nelly, and Jones proves as powerful in nuanced moments of quiet emotional availability as in Nelly's few, stirring allowances to speak truth to male privilege; it's a performance that should rightly take Jones' career to a new level. Meanwhile, Fiennes wisely plays Dickens as everything we thought we knew of him but also as capable of cruelty and inscrutability (the film opens with his words “A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other”): his sexual desire is plain enough, but is this love?
Nelly describes the tragedy of her life when she muses, "Whoever we're with, we're alone." Kept as Dickens' "secret," then forever honoring that secret as she struggles to emerge from Dickens' shadow, Ternan suffers until she can define herself on her own terms. Though a love story, The Invisible Woman spends most of its time in that shadow, while never leaving us in the dark.