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Film Review: The Invisible Woman

Story of Dickens and his teenaged mistress paints a bleak picture of women’s lives in 19th-century England

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Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan, Charles Dickens’ young mistress, opposite Ralph Fiennes (who also directed) as Dickens.

The Invisible Woman

Directed by Ralph Fiennes

Opens at the Charles Theatre Jan. 24

Some biographers and experts have claimed Charles Dickens was the first pop-culture celebrity. In this internet age, with TMZ and Twitter feeds, the assertion that an author commanded the kind of status we lavish on, say, Jennifer Lawrence might sound absurd, but when the British writer and actor toured the U.S. in 1842, he was routinely overwhelmed by fans. A politician in Philadelphia took it upon himself to make an announcement in the newspapers that Dickens was arriving in the city and that he would “receive the public.” A throng gathered outside the building, and for two hours, Dickens had to put on a smile, shake hands, and chat with adoring American fans lest they riot. He had similar receptions in Boston, New Haven, New York, Washington, Richmond, and elsewhere. (One of Dickens’ travel companions, G.W. Putnam, relates a story about Dickens’ passing through Baltimore by train; a crush of people pressed their faces to the rail car window to look at the author, and one woman, upon observing the crowd and learning it was all for a writer, remarked, “O . . . is that all? what do they make such a row about that for, I should like to know!”)

Ralph Fiennes, who plays Dickens in The Invisible Woman (he also directs), conveys this celebrity in a scene where a mob, discovering the man in their midst, rings around the author while he’s at the races. His companions at the track stand off to the side while more and more people swarm around, reaching over each other to just to touch him. In one handheld shot, the camera rapidly pans from Dickens’ polite expression—a slight smile plastered on—to his gloved hands, down by his waist, momentarily shaking one hand after the next. He sputters out dozens of thank yous and tries not to look flustered. Fiennes shows us a glimpse of the personal toll fame took in another era and Dickens’ way of carrying it: In The Invisible Woman, he is gracious to his many fans, but struggles with having his privacy yanked away from him. But in this story, based on Claire Tomalin’s book of the same name, Dickens is not the biggest victim of his own celebrity.

When he was 45, Dickens met and fell in love with 18-year-old actress Nelly Ternan (played in the film by Felicity Jones), who he eventually took on as a mistress—separating from his wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), with whom he had 10 children. In the film, whispers of the affair swirl about, but none affect Dickens so much as they do Nelly, who, as a result of the relationship, must be sequestered: a kept woman in her 20’s, who sacrifices her social standing to devote herself to Dickens’ brilliant, lively mind.

Ternan is the youngest of four sisters, actresses all, chaperoned by their mother, also an actress (Kristin Scott Thomas, deliberately looking wizened in makeup here). Nelly first meets Dickens while performing a small role in The Frozen Deep by Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander), and while Dickens almost immediately intuits that she possesses some special quality, it is made plain that Nelly isn’t bound to have a successful stage career. In one scene, while performing in a London production, she gets heckled for speaking too softly. Her sisters and her mother, acknowledging Nelly has no future there, condone the romance, as it provides her a means to live comfortably, albeit apart from respectable society.

For his part, Fiennes excels at balancing the author’s charisma with darker tendencies. Dickens’ pursuit of her is largely gentlemanly; he never creeps Nelly out or physically forces a situation. Nelly admiringly welcomes his attention. Nonetheless, Dickens’ position of power causes the relationship to progress, putting unspoken, unbegrudging pressure on Nelly and her family.

While the film turns its eye to this lesser-known side of Dickens, The Invisible Woman’s most striking aspect is the bleak picture it paints of women’s lives in 19th-century England. Catherine—with whom Dickens never had an exceptional connection—accidentally receives a gift intended for Nelly, and Dickens compels her to deliver it to Nelly herself, resulting in a sad confrontation that hurts both women. Nelly, who does love Dickens but who reluctantly withdraws from the social sphere, is repulsed by the fate that lies before her when she encounters Wilkie Collins’ live-in mistress, Caroline Graves (Michelle Fairley). Nelly’s choice to succumb to love consigns her to live on the fringes of society; she and Dickens eventually spend a long while in a small French village, where they stay under an assumed name.

The film does suggest to us, however, that Nelly is ultimately afforded a chance at a different, somewhat happier life. Throughout the movie, we see an older Nelly, married to a younger man not nearly as charming or luminous as Dickens but quite attentive and considerate. She works at a school for young boys and conceals her past: Her husband is under the impression her family knew Dickens when she was a child—a half-truth, really. She’s prone to taking incredibly long walks (a trait she picked up from Dickens, a prodigious walker himself). Those determined, fast-paced constitutionals and the baleful expression she often wears indicate that Nelly’s suffering didn’t end when she reclaimed a decent lifestyle. To exist in good society, she must keep a soul-suppressing secret indefinitely.

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