The life of Charles Dickens was perhaps as compelling as the novels he wrote. However, his amorous and passionate nature was kept a great secret by Dickens himself and the young woman, Nelly Ternan, the object of his love with whom he had an extended relationship, though it was not in the mainstream. Dickens’s coupling with Nelly was the inspiration for Pip’s love and relationship with Estella in Great Expectations. She was the prototype of Lucie Manette, fair haired, angelic and ethereally sweet. Nelly was Dickens’ confidante, his intellectual sounding board, his muse, his passionate love to warm his heart in his later years, after his wife bore him 10 children. Nelly was also possibly the mother of a still born child, which was never acknowledged and who was buried abroad, a tragic outcome of their love over which she has remorse and guilt.
All of these elements and many more are touched upon in Ralph Fiennes‘s second directorial adventure, The Invisible Woman. Fiennes directs and takes on the intriguing and vibrant role of the middle-aged phenom and incredibly popular Charles Dickens at the height of his career and allure. That is the time when he meets and is captivated by 18-year-old Nelly Ternan, played with sensitivity and complexity by Felicity Jones. The film is rendered in flashback as we follow a mature, married Nelly reflecting on her past with Dickens in which she must work through the unresolved and tumultuous aspects of her relationship with the famous author who has since died.
As the flashback unfolds we see how and when Dickens and Nelly meet, note the comparison of her beauty with Dickens’ mature wife and their lackluster marriage at this stage. We understand why Dickens quickly pursues and envelopes Nelly with his boundless charm, which Nelly’s luminescence takes in and shines back in an equal if not greater brilliance and angelic innocence. During their relationship we follow the pivotal events; Dickens eventually separates from his wife, though he can never marry Nelly because, we assume, he would lose his fans’ adoration and cause disgrace to his wife, Nelly, and himself. This is Victorian England with is prejudices, paternalism, injustices, and cultural indifference to the impoverished, and the rights of women, children, and the working classes.
The film moves along an arc spanning their relationship, revealing Nelly’s turmoil: her regrets, her vulnerability, her lack of autonomy and identity in a compromised relationship in which she remains invisible to herself and the world, though Dickens financially cared for her and helped her family. At the highpoint of the film, she achieves a sense of resolution and closure. What events bring her to this are the crux of the film and lend it mystery. However, at closure, she becomes visible to herself and appreciates and settles into her importance in the lives of her husband and children. It is then when she accepts her unknown yet vital contribution to the greatest and most influential of British writers in the modern era.
The Invisible Woman with its lush, well crafted and detailed artistry and spot-on intensely visual and intimate cinematography can be underestimated, and it shouldn’t be. The lighting, art design, and close-ups are well appointed and effective. The screenplay (Abi Morgan) is excellent, adapted from Claire Tomalin’s book of the same title and includes pithy dialogue: “Life is nothing without good company” ; “No one is entirely useless in this world, if they lighten a burden” ; (in speaking of London’s impoverished children) Dickens says, “…poverty and sickness rock their cradles, nail down their coffins.” The imagery is rich, though it is not stilted and it is flavorful and creative as one would image the conversations between Dickens and others, between Dickens and his intelligent, insightful, loving young companion might be.
The acting is great; Fiennes IS Dickens, energetic, brilliant, joyful, fun, complex, philosophically without measure. I kept equating Felicity Jones as a composite of removed, aloof Estella and angelic, sweet Lucie Manette. Of course, the change to visibility and fulness happens when she comes into her own after Dickens is long gone and we see the restive spirit leave and peace overtake her. It’s a marvelous and subtle transformation.
In the Q & A session after the screening, Fiennes was generous and telling. He confessed he has now become a Dickens reader. Prior to this he was only familiar with Little Dorrit. What interested him was the screenplay (Abi Morgan) and Claire Tomalin’s book. He was moved at the Tomalin’s intimation of the interior intimacy of Dickens’s young mistress, her haunting by the past which is unresolved, and which she must finally put to rest. Fiennes suggested that this is so of human relationships. Many of them just end or stop and there are unresolved issues that go on and there is little closure oftentimes. He found this an engaging and human aspect of the screenplay and of Nelly Ternan’s life with Dickens.
Fiennes enjoyed the special gifts that abounded from his actors and were teased out during the process of film-making with Tom Hollander (Wilkie Collins) and Kristen Scott Thomas (Frances Ternan) and the entire cast of actors whom he felt privileged to work with in being able to help nurture their wonderful performances. Would only an actor-director feel as Fiennes? He found it always amazing to watch the birth of his casts’ complex and beautiful performances.
Answering a question with regard to his angled and sometimes unusual use of close-ups, Fiennes referred to his director of Sunshine, István Szabó.Szabó said the close-up allows the audience to see thoughts and emotions that are born on the character’s/actor’s face for the first time. Fiennes concurred that the soul comes through an individual’s eyes; it is possible to feel the intimate exchange between two people as the close-up is the fundamental frame of the face which leads us into the soul of the actor. Fiennes and his cinematographer (Rob Hardy), took special pains to shoot a number of different close-ups from various angles to suggest the import of eavesdropping into the intimate arrangements between individuals and the souls of these men and women.
This Indie narrative was well received at the Hamptons International Film Festival. The audience appreciated its artistry and were interested in Dickens’s elusive woman. How often have women gone unknown for their greatness in inspiring a man’s success? Credit goes to the screenwriter, the author and Fiennes for introducing Nelly Ternan to the world and allowing her story to be appreciated. Closure, at last.