The Invisible Woman, directed and starring Ralph Fiennes, tells the story of Charles Dickens' secret relationship with a much younger woman.
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10 Apr 2014 - 3:07 PM  UPDATED 11 Apr 2014 - 9:09 AM

Ralph Fiennes' directorial debut was Shakespeare's Coriolanus. For his second effort behind the camera, the British actor turns to another great writer for inspiration - Charles Dickens.

The Invisible Woman is about the writer's secret relationship with Ellen Ternan, or Nelly (played by Felicity Jones), the much younger woman who became his muse and lover until his death.

As played by Fiennes, Dickens is lively, charming and immediately likeable. Meanwhile Jones, the exceptional young actress from Like Crazy, believably grows from a naive, innocent 18-year-old to an adult burdened by this enormous secret.

The pace is slow but consistent, as Fiennes keeps the reins tight and allows the story to gradually unfold. Such timing may irk those used to faster action, but this quiet period piece is a thought-provoking watch.

It begins in the mid-1880s, when Nelly, a schoolteacher, is distracted and obviously troubled but refuses to discuss it with her husband or friends.

We're taken into her past, when Nelly, the youngest of three girls in a family of actors, first appeared onstage with Dickens and caught his eye.

Over the years, the two share stolen glances and quiet conversations, not unseen by her concerned mother (Kristin Scott Thomas).

The development of their relationship is a little confusing, merely because of the time period we're dealing with. When rumours begin to fly about Charles and Nelly, we see them spending a lot of time together. Even though they are then merely friends (albeit friends who potentially feel more for each other), it's easy for the modern-day viewer to jump to the conclusion that the relationship is already more than that.

It's fascinating to learn about the possible influence of Nelly on Dickens' work, but The Invisible Woman also gets you thinking about the rigidity of Victorian England. Social conventions meant Nelly could never marry Dickens: their relationship was known by some, rumoured by many, but secret.

Over the course of the film, we see the toll this took on Nelly. A moment in the home of Wilkie Collins (played wonderfully by Tom Hollander) between Nelly and Colllins' unmarried partner, Caroline Graves (Game of Thrones' Michelle Fairley), is particularly revealing.

In keeping with the times, emotions are kept restrained and in-check, so when they bubble to the surface, it's powerful.

Special mention must go to Jones here and to Joanna Scanlan, whose layered, subtle performance as Catherine Dickens rings with sadness.

One for fans of Dickens and period films, The Invisible Woman may be a tale that's been in the shadows for more than 150 years, but it's illuminated with a lot of thought and heart here.

* The Invisible Woman releases in Australian cinemas on April 17