It may sound like an H.G. Wells page-turner, but all that The Invisible Woman has in common with science fiction is its literary storyline. Based on the novel by Claire Tomalin, Ralph Fiennes’ elegant film concerns the real-life affair between Charles Dickens (Fiennes) and the much younger Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones). It’s a film as much about complicated love as it is about Dickens’ celebrity, and in both regards it succeeds. Promoting the idea of Dickens the performer on par with Dickens the novelist, someone to be heard perhaps more so than someone to be read, the scene forms a rich backdrop against which the romance might blossom.
Framed by Nelly’s life in Margate, England in 1883 where she and husband George Wharton Robinson (Tom Burke) have a young son, the film is in some ways a series of reminiscences, but one without precise triggers. It’s not as if her stern direction of a schoolboy production of Dickens and Wilkie Collins’ play “No Thoroughfare” sets off any exact memories, but her reflection is more representative of the constant presence Dickens retains in her daily existence.
All that began “some years before” when she was recruited for a Manchester performance of “The Frozen Deep” by Collins (Tom Hollander) alongside her sister Maria (Perdita Weeks) and mother Frances (Kristin Scott Thomas) and, in the leading role, Mr. Dickens himself. Essentially a super fan who’s read and adores all of Dickens’ work, having consumed some of them twice, Nelly’s interactions with the author are a vicarious wonder for anyone with a smidgen of respect for the man and gradually evolve into the ultimate groupie experience.
Where The Invisible Woman gets a little sticky is in the flirtations and whatnot that follow. Dickens and Nelly clearly enjoy one another’s company, but distinct signs of intimate fondness are not easy to identify. For that reason, the film could prove somewhat difficult for viewers used to more direct signals (myself included), but the overarching quiet delight that arises from both performers and their respective characters are plenty sufficient to see their relationship through.
Perhaps taking close notes from Mike Newell on the set of Great Expectations, Fiennes’ camera movements are just active enough to boost the excitement of the times without teetering into Baz Luhrmann territory (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Long takes following characters through London’s streets and various hallways are an unexpected treat while extreme close-ups, such as of Nelly’s lovely neck as Dickens would have seen that smooth skin, ably depict him falling for her. Combined with the unfulfilling home life with his portly, humorless wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan) and his insistence in protecting Nelly’s reputation and it’s practically impossible not to root for these lovers’ happiness.
Rated R for some sexual content.
The Invisible Woman is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.