The Invisible Woman is a film about a literary figure I regrettably know very little about, yet his legacy is such that no one is completely unfamiliar with his works at least by title. Charles Dickens was the modern equivalent to a rock star of his day, his works loved by millions, and while we see glimpses of his adoring masses this film is about one in particular that to this day remains shrouded in mystery. Ellen Ternan, aka Nelly, aka the Invisible Woman, aka Dicken’s mistress.
Nelly (Felicity Jones) is only 18 when she meets Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) for the first time but it’s clear the infatuation for both begins almost immediately. Nelly, along with her mother and sisters, are all actors hired to perform in one of Dickens’ latest plays, along with Dickens himself and his protégé/writing partner Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander). From there, the two form an instant connection that is closely monitored by Nelly’s mother Frances (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Dickens’ wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan). Nelly is at first appalled by the idea of being with a married man, but when Catherine leaves, the two begin their life together albeit in secret.
Ralph Fiennes stars and directs this film which jumps back and forth in time between Nelly and Dickens’ time together and after Dickens’ death and how Nelly, a now married mother and school headmistress is still clinging to his memory and their relationship. The screenplay is based on a book of the same name by Claire Tomalin. Much of this period is shrouded in speculation because unfortunately both Dickens and Nelly destroyed all correspondence between the two of them and because much of their relationship was conducted in secret so as not to destroy the reputations of either individuals, even close friends and vindictive relatives only have bits and pieces of the story. Unable to fill in any truthful descriptive details, the film takes on a rather generic plot, whereby a famous older man falls for a bright-eyed young woman full of life and ideas. We know the two were kindred spirits in literary pursuits, but the extent of Nelly’s influence on Dickens’ own writing is largely unknown. Information of this nature may have made for a more compelling and unique story that goes beyond the already familiar mistress trope.
The film is primarily told from Nelly’s perspective but again, the film relies too heavily on social conventions of the time to fill out Nelly’s thoughts and feelings on her relationship with Dickens, making her less of a compelling character and more of a stock female from the Victorian era. Divorce was unheard of for a man of Dickens social standing, and Nelly is unsurprisingly hesitant in her feelings for him. This is hardly new territory, and while the film includes the disputed existence of Nelly and Dickens infant son that died at birth, I think it would have been useful if the film ventured more into the realms of speculation, historical accuracy be damned. It may make for a suspect book, but a much better film.
I’m intrigued by Tomalin’s best-selling biography depicting this part of Dickens life, and wonder if there is more information she was able to cull that was just left out of the film. When family members remain silent for so long (the Dickens family was mum about the whole thing until the last son’s death in the 1930s), precious information is often lost forever. This is the perfect example of when literary license is oftentimes necessary in the art of filmmaking. Leave reality for scholarly pursuits and legacy for the screen. Regardless, Fiennes has created a rather watchable and oftentimes beautifully filmed period piece that at the very least educated this lapsed literary student on the existence of yet another of history’s love affairs.
The Invisible Woman opens today at the Ritz Bourse.
Author: Jill Malcolm
Jill is happiest attending midnight screenings with other crazy film fans at her local theater. Her other passions include reading, traveling to faraway places, cat videos, pugs, and jalapeño peppers. She is co-founder of the blog Filmhash.