Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas
Though perhaps lacking natural acting talent, being born into an acting family Ellen ‘Nelly’ Ternan (Jones) at the age of eighteen gets cast into a play written by Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander) along with the rest of her family. When performing, she catches the eye of 45 year Charles Dickens and the two strike up a bond due to Nelly’s intelligence and appreciation of Dickens’ work that he never gets from his wife (Joanna Scanlan). Though he leaves his wife for Nelly, through fear of the public backlash revelation of his affair would cause, Dickens keeps their mutual love an eternal secret. Though the times they spend together (often in secret) are wonderful experiences for both of them, Nelly often struggles to come to terms with the fact she will always be the invisible woman in Charles Dickens’ public life.
It seems for his directorial career Ralph Fiennes wants to tackle all the great English writers: first Shakespeare when he played the title character in Coriolanus and now Dickens, but this time playing the man himself. Knowledge of Dickens’ life or his works is certainly not necessary to be engaged with the narrative of The Invisible Woman as it ultimately an examination of such universal themes as the emotions one can have with feeling an undeniable and unique connection with another individual, yet societal rules almost make this bond forbidden.
The pace is admittedly slow, but very well judged as this allows deep character development as both characters come out with great sympathy from us. I of course personally have no knowledge of the historical accuracy of the film and how accurate its depiction of the character’s actions are, but within the narrative both protagonists emerge with integrity and full sympathy, and it is in my view this that that makes The Invisible Woman such an engaging experience. In the eyes of society and convention what both characters ultimately want cannot happen, and so there is an ultimate feeling of tragedy to the compromise they have to make.
This engagement is only enhanced by Fienne’s subtle direction and the excellent and emotionally complex performances. The film certainly feels cinematic, with some beautiful shots of the outdoor scenes, while the subtle lighting captures the intimacy of the story in the indoor scenes. However, this is very much a human drama, and Fiennes seems to make sure that the visuals are never overbearing and kept very subtle, allowing us to focus on the very human and sympathetic struggles that the characters face within the narrative.
Though this is admittedly a performance Fiennes can excel in with relative ease, he perfectly evokes the passion and energy Dickens has for the theatre and his writing, but then the complex range of emotions he feels as his relationship with Nelly develops. However the real star is Felicity Jones; she gave in my view an excellent performance of subtle complexity in the 2013 drama Breathe In (if you want to read my review of that, click here), but in The Invisible Woman surpasses even that. The limited but very poignant words in Abi Morgan’s screenplay are delivered by here with incredible sincerity, and Jones’ facial expressions capture an abundance of conflicting emotions that Nelly encounters throughout the narrative.
Likewise the supporting performances are very strong: Tom Hollander adds to his ever increasing list of excellent supporting roles as the comic relief as Dickens’ mate and fellow writer Wilkie Collins, Kristen Scott Thomas is excellent in the minor but important role as Nelly’s mother, and Joanna Scanlan evokes genuine sympathy as Dickens’ illiterate but good hearted wife.
Though the subject matter may feel like clichéd melodrama, Morgan’s screenplay and the sincere performances make sure that The Invisible Woman rises above such hurdles to emerge as a genuinely engaging and emotionally involving drama about universally human themes.