Ralph Fiennes tackled Shakespeare for his directorial debut, and for his second effort he approaches the latter years in the life of Charles Dickens with The Invisible Woman, telling a story I’d never heard and one almost too unbelievable to be true. Yet, taking into account dramatic license, it actually is.
Adapted from Claire Tomalin‘s book by Abi Morgan (Shame), this is an elegantly told story with some wonderful performances. Yet, for everything that’s right about the film Fiennes has a tendency to linger on a scene or moment until all the air is sucked out of it and his approach is so traditional, following what almost seems like the “Paint by Numbers” book on period pieces, the film doesn’t really have an identity of its own. This doesn’t make it bad per se, but it does prevent it from rising up and being something truly outstanding.
Set in 1857, The Invisible Woman tells the story of 45-year-old Charles Dickens (Fiennes) and his would-be mistress and muse, Ellen Ternan (Felicity Jones), or Nelly as she is most often referred. Meeting on an occasion where Dickens and Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander) were hiring professional actors for one of their plays, Dickens falls in love with the then 18-year-old. He ultimately makes the decision to leave his wife (Joanna Scanlan) and spend the rest of his days with the young girl, but in a world where Dickens is a celebrity in his own right, the relationship can never be an open one, hence the film’s title.
The story begins in 1883 with the bulk of the film told as a flashback. The ’83 scenes are used largely as a way to bookend the film, but this is something I’d prefer Fiennes get away from. Clearly he’s a traditionalist as this felt like just as much a stage play as it does a feature film, opening with a Dickens quote we’ll later hear in the film and ending with a callback to the notable moment Dickens first hears Nelly’s line reading. But when it comes to period pieces, sticking strictly to tradition results in a lack of “newness”. Instead you’re left to rely solely on the story and your ability to tell it. And, as I said, The Invisible Woman is a fascinating story, but at the same time it isn’t as if Fiennes’ storytelling is anything we haven’t seen before.
Conversely, excellent costuming and wonderful production design bring the period to life and anyone with even the slightest connection to Dickens’ work will find familiarity in some of the imagery if not the crowning moment when inspiration strikes and the result is “Great Expectations”.
Fiennes is his typical stand-up self in the role of Dickens, but the best performance comes from Jones. Nelly is a strong character, but her constitution is weakened in the presence of Dickens. She’s lost in his prose and he’s taken by her comprehension of his work. He adores her as more than object, which is typically where these “older men, younger girl” stories traditionally tread. Yet, within this relationship, the secretive nature of it, not to mention the fact Dickens was married when they met, eats away at Nelly and Jones embodies this angst and we can’t help but feel for her, leading up to a third act climax that really brings it all home.
In a much smaller role, Tom Hollander as Dickens’ protege Wilkie Collins is fantastic. Bearded and almost unrecognizable, Hollander has a certain pep he brings to his performances that gives the film a jolt of life and humor without being characterized as “comic relief”.
While I have my issues with The Invisible Woman, the film still entertained me with an incredibly intriguing story and performances that convincingly brought it to life. If only it didn’t feel like every middle-of-the-road period piece I’d ever seen I would be able to give it so much more credit. But as it is, it’s one of those films you enjoy once, but don’t really feel the need to return to.