As if we needed further proof of his prodigious talent,
Ralph Fiennes delivers a magnificent performance as Charles Dickens while
directing himself and a first-rate ensemble in The Invisible Woman. Working from a script by Abi Morgan (who
explored a more contemporary figure in The
Iron Lady), Fiennes brings 19th century England to vivid life.
This is no ordinary period piece, as it casts a keen, modern eye on the mores
(and hypocrisy) of the Victorian age.
Felicity Jones gives a fierce yet subtle performance as
Nelly Ternan, the odd-girl-out in a fatherless theatrical family headed by
Kristin Scott Thomas. She is just 18 when Dickens meets her while staging a
play he has authored with the redoubtable Wilkie Collins, who is played with
gusto by Tom Hollander. Dickens is the most celebrated author in the world at
this time, an outsized personality who
presides over a brood of ten children…but he is deeply unhappy in his home
life, as his wife (Joanna Scanlan) scarcely understands his creative nature and
is no longer sexually appealing. When young Ternan answers a last-minute
casting call, with her mother and sisters in tow, he is immediately taken with
her and makes subtle advances which gradually develop into a scandalous affair.
The production design by Maria Djurkovic transports us to
that era, and cinematographer Rob Hardy carefully lights his sets—from cramped
apartments to spacious theaters—in a way that tellingly evokes a time before the
introduction of electric lights.
Told in flashback, The
Invisible Woman is not consistently compelling. Despite Jones’ fine
performance, her character is aloof and difficult to empathize with at various
junctures in the bifurcated narrative. Ultimately we come to understand the
elements that shaped her and formed her grim, latter-day persona. Jones
captures every nuance of this troubled young woman, whose name and very
existence were wiped clean from the pages of history following Dickens’ death
in 1870. Fiennes, too, conveys all the colors and moods of his famous
character, while Hollander, Scanlon, and Scott Thomas provide excellent
At times, The
Invisible Woman is as aloof as its female protagonist, but the acting and
physical production work in its favor. It’s a good movie overall, but with
those superior ingredients I was hoping for a great one.