Though told from the point of view of Charles Dickens’ longtime secret mistress, and concerned primarily with their passionate yet socially impossible love affair, the main attraction of “The Invisible Woman” is a rare portrait of Dickens the man — whose works are much better known than his personal life.
That’s not surprising, of course, especially since the full extent of the secret relationship between Dickens and the young actress Nelly Ternan only came to light in 1991 as a result of Victorian literary biography specialist Claire Tomlin’s interest in the author.
Not that director Ralph Fiennes (“Coriolanus”), who also contributes a convincing and affecting performance as Dickens, has placed himself center-stage, a la “Shakespeare in Love.” In “The Invisible Woman,” as adapted by screenwriter Abi Morgan (“Shame,” “The Iron Lady”) from Tomlin’s biography, Dickens is a central figure, but only within Ternan’s memories.
The film opens in 1883, 13 years after Dickens’ death. Ternan, who spent more than 10 years as his lover living on the margins of London society under an assumed name, has reinvented herself as Nelly Wharton Robinson, a teacher, mother and wife of a loving but tedious public school headmaster (Tom Burke). While overseeing a schoolboy production of Dickens’ play “No Thoroughfare,” Nelly, troubled by her memories, takes long, solitary walks flashing back to the love affair that began 26 years earlier.
Nelly (the impressive Felicity Jones, more fiercely proud than swooningly amorous) is 18 when she meets the 45-year-old Dickens, who at that time is at the height of his fame and midway through the serialized publication of “Great Expectations.” Dickens, also a theatrical impresario, playwright and gifted amateur actor, has engaged her services to replace an actress in a production of his co-authored play “The Frozen Deep.” Dickens is married with 10 children, but he has grown apart from his wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan in a touching and sympathetic performance) — and the attraction he and Nelly feel for each other is immediate, powerful and obvious to everyone around them.
Contrary to what might be expected, Dickens and Nelly do not instantly surrender to their passions. Dickens, in addition to having a reputation as a man who prizes home and family, clearly has genuine affection for his wife although that does not prevent him, eventually, from cruelly humiliating her. And Nelly has an iron-willed sense of Victorian propriety that makes her angrily resist even the suggestion of romance that cannot lead to marriage.
In time, however, resistance proves futile.
“The Invisible Woman” is a handsome, leisurely paced, sensitively acted production in the Merchant Ivory/Masterpiece Theater tradition, one that does a particularly nice job of detailing the sort of all-consuming love affair that causes equal amounts of pain and joy.
Even so, it’s still the memory of Dickens the man and the hard-working author, furiously scribbling his manuscript pages of “Great Expections,” that’s likely to linger.
Though the woman he loves, who finds a way to live an extraordinary life in a highly conventional time, is certainly worth remembering as well.