In his directorial debut, Ralph Fiennes was ambitious enough to take on Shakespeare and bring a modern-day Coriolanus to bloody, brutal life. He turns to literature for inspiration once again for his second film behind the camera, with more good results. The Invisible Woman focuses on Charles Dickens’ young mistress, actress Nelly Ternan. She met the literary giant in 1857 when she was 18 and he was 45 — she had a role in a production of his play The Frozen Deep — and their subsequent love affair destroyed his marriage.
The Invisible Woman is based on Claire Tomalin’s biography of Ternan, who is played by Felicity Jones as both the naive, inexperienced young girl dazzled by the great man (played by Fiennes himself) and the wiser, now-married woman who has moved on to a new life after his death. The film opens with a striking shot of Nelly striding purposefully across a wide stretch of sand, on her way to direct a boys’ school version of The Frozen Deep. As she watches the children practice the lines she knows so well, her thoughts drift back in time to her meeting with Dickens and how it changed the course of her future.
Screenwriter Abi Morgan and Fiennes, who’s getting awfully good at directing himself and everybody around him, envision Dickens as something of a rock star in 19th century London, a popular, glad-handing figure who can’t step out in public without an adoring audience swarming. He’s a charismatic man full of complications (which makes the gifted Fiennes the perfect actor to play him). He has grown famous through his writing but also his work in theater, where he collaborates with Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander). This avenue has also introduced him to Nelly’s older sisters, both actresses, and her observant mother Frances (Kristin Scott Thomas, and yes, it is a pleasure to see these two English Patient alumni together on screen again). Charles is charming and funny with all of the Ternans. But even when he’s besieged by well-wishers, his gaze returns inevitably to Nelly.
The affair never feels like a foregone conclusion: Nelly is drawn to Charles but horrified by what accepting his love means. He can’t marry her, as he already has a wife (in one callous move, he even sends the poor discarded woman to Nelly to deliver a birthday gift). At first Frances Ternan warns Charles off, but her practical nature forces her to reconsider the situation. She knows her daughter isn’t much of an actress; money is in short supply, and at least as Dickens’ mistress she’ll be provided for.
The central question of The Invisible Woman, then, is whether Nelly is willing to live as a secret with none of the advantages afforded a wife. Getting to the heart of Nelly’s turnaround on the matter is intriguing, but in the interests of time, perhaps, Fiennes ends up shortchanging the audience. We never learn how she got to her present situation or how she met her husband — a nice enough fellow but hardly a literary genius — and what that transition meant to her. Still, The Invisible Woman offers a compelling glimpse at a life once hidden.
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Tom Hollander, Kristin Scott Thomas, John Kavanagh, Michelle Fairley.
Director: Ralph Fiennes.
Screenwriter: Abi Morgan. Based on the book by Claire Tomalin.
Producers: Christian Baute, Carolyn Marks Blackwood, Stewart Mackinnon, Gabrielle Tana.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 111 minutes. Some sexual content. Playing at: In Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Broward: Gateway, Paradise; in Palm Beach, Shadowood, Palace, Boynton.