He was also a daily target for the gossip press. Ralph Fiennes explores a little-known aspect of Dickens’ life in The Invisible Woman by homing in on his “secret” relationship with a young actress named Ellen “Nelly” Ternan (Felicity Jones). She was the invisible woman in the author’s life.
At the time there were rumours about the affair, especially when Dickens separated from his wife of 22 years, but nothing was confirmed. Scholars began looking into the Dickens-Ternan liaison in the mid-20th century and there was a great deal of speculation about a romantic component. Although both participants burned their correspondence to one another, sufficient third-person information existed to piece together a reasonable outline of their love affair, which Claire Tomalin recounts in her meticulously researched 1990 book The Invisible Woman.
Working from a screenplay by Abi Morgan, Fiennes has done a tremendous job in bringing this story to life and it will appeal to Dickens enthusiasts. An overriding facet of this slow-paced and sedate production is the sense of tragedy and sadness that pervades it. There were possibly moments of great joy that the couple felt in the years they spent together, but not much of this manages to surface here.
A distracting aspect is Fiennes’ decision to discard a linear presentation, opting instead to move backwards and forwards in time. The purpose is to provide closure to Ternan’s story, but the forced and artificial payoff scene fails to justify this. Nevertheless the narrative, which takes place between 1857 and the late 1860s, still offers strong emotions to accompany its literary goals.
Dickens first meets Ternan as an actress working on a production of The Frozen Deep, a play written by Dickens’ good friend, Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander). For a while, Dickens’ interactions with Ellen, her two older sisters, and her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas ) are not improperly conducted. However, it becomes obvious that there is mutual attraction between the author and the 18-year-old girl which is far too powerful for either of them to ignore.
Ternan is everything that Dickens’ wife isn’t: intellectually curious, able to discuss his books, and interested in him as a man. Because of the strictures of society at the time, however, they are unable to fully commit to each other and soon Ternan is beset with a sense of melancholy.
When the production returns to its beginning, 13 years after Dickens’ death in 1883, Ternan is married and has a son but is unable to dispel from her thoughts a love affair that continues to haunt her. The Invisible Woman is a fascinating excursion into Victorian England, cleverly examining what it was like to be the “other woman” during that age. Charles Dickens is given a human form.
The acting is uniformly good. As Dickens, Fiennes manages to submerge himself beneath the skin of the character. More engrossing, though, is Felicity Jones, whose interpretation displays enormous range and depth as the character is forced to face all kinds of adversity yet manages to remain resilient.