“The Invisible Woman”
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Hollander, Joanna Scanlan, Perdita Weeks, John Kavanagh
Rating: R, and quite ludicrously, for mild sexual content
Celebrated author’s clandestine affair makes for dull drama
By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic
Consider the irony: Actor/director Ralph Fiennes’ new film about Charles Dickens, a storytelling craftsman, is undone by a maddeningly clumsy script.
However authentic the 19th century setting, however lavish the costumes, however fascinating that so many of the English estates and countryside settings seem not to have changed, it remains impossible to become involved with this narrative. Abi Morgan’s screenplay is slow, difficult to follow, and needlessly enigmatic. Essential details are glossed over or rendered so subtly as to be overlooked.
Morgan already has demonstrated an unconventional approach to biographical material; her screenplay for “The Iron Lady” was less about Margaret Thatcher, and more about the nature of grief, and the cruelty of old age. Viewers wanting to learn something about the career that shaped and defined Thatcher walked away disappointed; folks are likely to do the same after enduring Fiennes’ “The Invisible Woman.”
The title refers to Ellen (Nelly) Ternan, who in 1857, at the age of 18, came to the attention of Dickens during a Manchester performance of “The Frozen Deep,” a play that he had co-written with his good friend Wilkie Collins. Nelly and her two older sisters, Maria and Fanny, were at that time following in the acting footsteps of their mother, Frances Ternan, who had achieved modest fame on the London stage.
Dickens, then 45, was married and the father of nine children. He nonetheless fell in love with Nelly, an arrangement that her mother likely “tolerated” both because of the celebrated author’s stature, and because her youngest daughter had scant acting talent. Besides which, Victorian-era actresses generally were regarded as only one short step above prostitutes … so it could be argued that Nelly didn’t have much of a reputation to protect.
But Dickens did. Despite the very public manner in which he disavowed his wife and mother of their many children — publishing a letter in his own magazine, “Household Words,” which blamed her for their estrangement — he nonetheless managed to keep his relationship with Nelly below public (and press) radar.
Dickens and Nelly remained lovers and companions until the author’s death in 1870, at which point — and here’s the fascinating part — the 31-year-old Nelly, still looking quite youthful, “re-invented” herself as a much younger woman. While staying with her sister Maria in Oxford, she caught the eye of an undergraduate named George Wharton. They eventually married — he was 24, she a clandestine 36 — and settled in Margate, where they had two children and ran a boys’ school.
When anybody asked about her unusually extensive library of Dickens’ works, she’d claim that the author had been a family friend when she was a little girl.
Armed with this background, you’ll be in a better position to follow the often jarring time-shifts in Fiennes’ film, which opens in Margate in 1885. We meet Nelly (Felicity Jones) as she readies a play put on by the students at the school she runs with her husband (Tom Burke). She’s a troubled woman, prone to long walks along the nearby seashore: a moodiness observed by the Rev. William Benham (John Kavanagh), apparently a close family friend.
At which point, Fiennes and Morgan roll back the clock to 1857, and the circumstances that bring Nelly and Dickens (played by Fiennes) together.
Jones plays Nelly as the worldly-wise young woman we’d expect, given the life she and her sisters would have experienced with their mother (Kristin Scott Thomas, quietly regal as always). Nelly is passionate about the arts and devoted to Dickens’ books, even before they meet; acquiring the personal interest of her favorite author is intoxicating, and Jones deftly conveys the blend of worshipful delight and wariness that would have been expected from a “proper” young woman.
I’m less certain about a few of her more spiteful objections to Dickens’ deeper feelings, once revealed; despite Jones’ best efforts, her words have a decidedly 21st century feminist ring. I had a similar objection to some of Morgan’s dialogue in “The Iron Lady,” which sounded tin-eared and rang false.
The same is true of Nelly’s reaction upon meeting Caroline Graves (Michelle Fairley, immediately recognized as Catelyn Stark from “Game of Thrones”), mistress to Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander). Even allowing for this scene’s function as a narrative catalyst — Nelly being confronted by her own likely future — her dismissive, rude behavior toward Caroline seems wholly out of character. Fiennes, as director, obviously couldn’t get Jones to sell the moment.
Indeed, Fiennes too frequently settles for superficial performances, counting on the script’s gravitas to do the heavy dramatic lifting. We get barely a hint of the bond between Nelly and her sisters — Maria (Perdita Weeks) and Fanny (Amanda Hale) — who remain ciphers throughout this film. Worse yet, they and their mother disappear entirely, once Dickens and Nelly begin their affair … which both leaves a rather large hole in the various character dynamics, and also is counter to real-world history, since Nelly remained very close to her family during these 13 years.
All of which brings us to Fiennes’ performance. He’s every inch the passionate, energetic and ambitious author and playwright whose public readings electrified audiences. Fiennes often seems ready to burst from repressed enthusiasm, and he superbly conveys the impact this famed author had in public; a scene at the racetrack, when the punters recognize the celebrity in their midst, is quite unsettling (one of the film’s strongest moments, actually).
Fiennes also delivers the arrogance that would have come with such acclaim; his Dickens embarks on this affair with Nelly, frankly and bluntly, because he wants to. And because he can. His subsequent public dismissal of his wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), is cruel in the extreme; far worse is his insistence that she deliver a gold bracelet to Nelly, which a London jeweler mistakenly sent to the Dickens household.
This is by far the film’s most emotionally intense scene, with Scanlan radiating misery as the humiliated Catherine, and Jones trembling with her own volatile mixture of emotions, as the stunned Nelly.
It’s a far better scene than the wordless, protracted moment of truth that soon follows between Dickens and Nelly, when she finally surrenders her virtue. I can’t imagine what Fiennes had in mind, because this scene doesn’t work at all; the lighting is too dim, and cinematographer Rob Hardy’s close-up too intense, to make out either performer’s expression. And the absence of dialogue, once again, feels totally wrong.
Then, after all this time spent on the build-up — pointlessly trying to generate false suspense regarding Nelly’s eventual decision (Will she? Won’t she?) — the film’s third act becomes vague and sloppy. Fiennes and Morgan essentially abandon the Dickens/Nelly relationship, just as they dismiss Frances, Fanny and Maria Ternan. We get no glimpse at all of Dickens’ final years, or what Nelly does next, or how she pulls off the best performance of her career, when she establishes a whole new persona. (Obviously, Ellen Ternan was a good actress.)
Instead, we return once again, as many times before — too many times — to Nelly striding purposely along the pounding ocean surf in 1885, eventually succumbing to Rev. Benham’s offer of spiritual succor.
Benham figures in Claire Tomalin’s 1990 biography of Ellen Ternan, on which Morgan’s script is based. Sort of. (Tomalin also has written biographies of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Mary Wollstonecraft and numerous other individuals.)
I have to believe that Tomalin’s (no doubt) well-researched book is far more satisfying than Morgan and Fiennes’ irritating, superficial, cherry-picked and historically vague adaptation of the same material.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com. Be sure to join Derrick during the first three Sunday evenings in February, when he hosts the Classic Film Festival at the Davis Odd Fellows Hall.