Movie review

'Invisible Woman' perfectly set, but glazes over Dickens' affair


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Even clad in Victorian-era bonnet, gloves, boots and floor-length folds of fabric, Nelly (Felicity Jones) is speed walking along the beach in Margate, England, in 1883.

She moves with purpose, her back often to the camera, as though she's trying to run away from someone or something, perhaps herself or her past in "The Invisible Woman." She is a wife and mother but for years was the secret mistress of the celebrated Charles Dickens.

'The Invisible Woman'

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas.

Rating: R for some sexual content.


"The Invisible Woman," directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes as Dickens, dramatizes this little-known chapter in the life of the writer who gave us David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Tiny Tim, Ebenezer Scrooge and hundreds of other characters.

Penned by "The Iron Lady" screenwriter Abi Morgan and based on the book of the same name by biographer Claire Tomalin, the drama chronicles the still-shadowy affair that started when Nelly Ternan was 18 and Dickens 45, married and the father of 10 children.

Ellen Lawless Ternan or Nelly, the daughter and sister of actresses, appears alongside Dickens in the play "The Frozen Deep" written by compatriot Wilkie Collins in 1857 Manchester. In a voice not designed to project to the rafters -- her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) will later say Nelly's talent lies elsewhere -- the teen nevertheless delivers an epilogue foreshadowing her next dozen years.

"This is a tale of woe. This is a tale of sorrow. A love denied. A love restored to live beyond tomorrow. Lest we think silence is the place to hide a heavy heart, remember to love and be loved is life itself. Without which we are nought."

Much is telling about that first encounter in which an energetic Dickens playfully introduces his brood of children, concluding, "And that is it, I think," before realizing he has forgotten someone. "Yes, of course, my wife." Oops.

Plump Catherine Dickens (Joanna Scanlan) is standing nearby and when she later asks Nelly if she's an admirer of Charles' work, the younger woman turns rapturous about "Little Dorrit" and "Bleak House." Catherine replies: " 'Tis a fiction designed to entertain."

Nelly will soon, reluctantly and slowly, become the other woman. The silent, invisible other woman who comes to understand what a humiliated Catherine says early on: "You will find that you must share him with his public. They will be the constant and, in truth, you will never absolutely know which one he loves the most -- you or them."

Or you or his reputation, as a train accident proves. In fact, Ms. Tomalin writes that Nelly's mother was traveling with the couple in a first-class carriage, a detail omitted here. A separate heartbreaking episode involving an infant is dramatized here, although specifics are subject to debate because efforts were made to conceal it.

"The Invisible Woman" is one of those movies with exquisite costumes (its sole Oscar nomination), opulent period details, and scenes bathed in warm light from fireplaces, gas lamps or a welcoming sun. But it skims over salient facts about Catherine, the disposition of the Dickens children and the role of Catherine's sister, Georgina Hogarth, in caring for them, and how the affair passed from rumored to real.

Ms. Jones ("Like Crazy," "Hysteria") invests Nelly with a teenager's innocence that gives way to an adult acceptance of an arrangement that torments and haunts her long after Dickens' 1870 death.

Mr. Fiennes, who made his directorial debut with the little-seen "Coriolanus," allows the world-famous author his concern for the poor, youthful vigor, prolific output, fear of scandal and, frankly, cruel treatment of his wife. This is a love story, not an expose of an older celebrity preying on a beauty not even half his age.

It is also not a drama about Dickens. It is, after all, titled "The Invisible Woman," and she is made visible but not brought into extremely sharp focus.

And that is just as she and Mr. Dickens wanted it.

Opens today at the Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill.


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.

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