The true story of the secret love affair between Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) and the young theatre actress Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones). Dickens was 45 when he met Ternan, then 18, in 1857. Their relationship remained secret from the public, even after Dickens's separation from his wife the following year. Ternan travelled with the author for the rest of his life. After his death, she continued the Dickensian love of deception by marrying a man 12 years her junior; and hid her past relationship with the most famous writer of the day.
The Visible Man
Following his bold and assertive 2011 directorial debut Coriolanus, which came 21 years after his first major role as Nazi commandant Amon Goeth in Steven Spielberg’s 1992 Oscar winner Schindler’s List and a subsequent career straddling projects both massive (Harry Potter, Skyfall) and modest (Spider, In Bruges), actor-turned-director Ralph Fiennes has proven his filmmaking chops are no fluke with the sublime historical romantic drama The Invisible Woman.
The film darts deftly amongst a number of separate time periods. In 1885 Margate, Nelly Wharton Robinson (Felicity Jones) is married to George (Tom Burke) and teaches drama at the boys school of which he is headmaster. She spends much of her time lost in thought over matters not revealed, and takes long walks on the deserted beach.
The earliest thread, which begins in 1857, sees the then 18-year-old Nelly rehearsing with her mother Catherine Ternan (Kristin Scott Thomas) and sisters Fanny (Amanda Hale) and Maria (Perdita Weeks) for a Manchester production of The Frozen Deep, written by Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander). The play stars, and is being directed by, the already famous author and identity Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes). Unfortunately, Dickens is married to the tolerant Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), who has borne him 10 children.
Slowly, and with much discretion, the two are drawn together. Yet these are not lusty new lovers in the throes of passion; in Victorian England, romantic negotiations were conducted with glances, veiled conversations and convenient coincidences of timing. Rather, their attraction is both furtive and stealth, taking a healthy chunk of the picture’s first hour to bring them together. Credit Fiennes for having the fortitude to allow the relationship to play out as slowly as the times dictated.
As one might imagine, Catherine is conflicted over the advantages and disadvantages of allowing her daughter to be rendered “invisible” by becoming the mistress of a married and very famous man. She is practical, yes, but in the end complicit in the arrangement.
As the eventful last years of Dickens’ life play out, Nelly becomes comfortable with herself, bringing her story back to the boys school and her deeply satisfying—and far more conventional—new life.
The script was adapted by Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady) from the book by Claire Tomalin, and displays very little of the strain often associated with plots that have been teased and from pre-existing properties to film.
Fiennes was brought the property by Coriolanus producer Gabrielle Tana, and initially had no intention of playing Dickens in addition to directing. Yet his performance is on equal footing with his volcanic Coriolanus, the only difference being that his Dickens is a relentlessly jolly force of nature who wants what he wants when he wants it.
Fiennes also proves himself a gifted director of women, drawing extraordinarily nuanced and affecting performances from Jones and Scanlan.
In an interview taped recently exclusively for SBS Online, Fiennes was eager to discuss his filmmaking influences. He quickly cited Hungarian director István Szábo, with whom he made Sunshine in 1999, as a major influence on his use of close-ups. He also praised the influence of camera placement in the influential films of Yasujiro Ozu.
Would that more films displayed the below-the-line craftsmanship and attention to detail on display in The Invisible Woman (and Coriolanus too, for that matter). Having appeared in films by Spielberg, Anthony Minghella, Gillian Armstrong, David Cronenberg, Kathryn Bigelow and Wes Anderson, Ralph Fiennes has quite obviously been paying attention on set and doing his film history homework. This knowledge, coupled with his obvious talent as a filmmaker, will hold him in good stead.