Last night at the London Film Festival, I went to see The Invisible Woman, the film adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s novel about Charles Dickens’ affair with 18 year old actress Nelly Ternan. I haven’t read Tomalin’s book and I was slightly hesitant about this movie. Was it going to be a sensational costume drama along the lines of The Other Boleyn Girl? Or a vanity project for director and star Ralph Fiennes? All these fears I had were assuaged when the movie got underway and I discovered what a patient, sympathetic drama it was about a complicated love affair.
Dickens meets Nelly while in his prime as a writer. Heavily established with his wife (played by the incredibly sympathetic Joanna Scanlan) and several children he continues to produce praised serialized novels, gives popular lectures frequently and contributes to charitable events. Whenever he is recognized in public he’s treated as a celebrity surrounded by avid fans seeking to shake his hand. During a production of his friend Wilkie Collins’ play The Frozen Deep his eye is caught by actress Nelly. He increasingly seeks to spend time with Nelly alongside her two actress sisters and their mother played by the talented Kristin Scott Thomas. Thomas’ character understands that Dickens is interested in her daughter even though he makes no overt flirtation with her and takes a cautious approach to this potential affair. Nelly is a shy, intelligent girl who is a great fan of Dickens’ writing and is equally cautious towards Dickens’ evident affection for her. Felicity Jones does an amazing job playing Nelly in a way that is guarded, but full of passion. When Dickens finally decides to break from his wife Catherine the split acts like a seismic shift in the lives of Dickens, his wife and Nelly. He’s unable to marry Nelly and therefore she can’t be formally recognized as his partner. Even when the couple are travelling together on a train which crashes he can’t admit that he knows her and must treat Nelly like a stranger. Some years in the future when the two have separated, Nelly lives a beleaguered existence having remarried and given birth to a new family but she’s unable to escape the haunting memory of her affair with a powerful literary genius.
What’s most effective about this movie is the balanced and sympathetic attention it gives to all the characters involved. Charles and Catherine have grown apart and are shown to be somewhat trapped in their established lifestyle. Catherine seems to know she can’t hope to hold onto the affections of her incredibly active and busy husband. While Dickens could be condemned as despicable for turning his back on his longstanding wife (and the way he goes about breaking up with her and declaring his favour for Nelly is atrocious) it’s not understandable that his affections have transformed. Fiennes plays Dickens as someone who cares about people deeply, but someone who is also attached to his public persona. As Catherine remarks in an amazing scene between her and Nelly, Dickens affections will always be torn between the woman he loves and the public. Love is difficult. There is always a conflict between ego and giving yourself fully to the person you love. The true passion we feel for those we love is often sublimated and inexpressible. Through the subtle performances of Fiennes, Jones and Scanlan we see the quiet introspective moments of these three people’s lives and how their desire was largely swallowed due the circumstances they found themselves in. It’s a powerful, haunting film.