Film Review: The Invisible Woman (2013)

The Invisible Woman, in which Charles Dickens is a dick, Joanna Scanlan is magnificent and Ralph Fiennes is really rather good as both director and star

“He is a good man…trying to be a good man”

A film I’ve had on my ‘must get round to watching’ list for a wee while now, The Invisible Woman turns out to be an embrassment of riches for pretty much everyone involved. Written by Abi Morgan and adapted from Claire Tomalin’s novel of the same name, its focus is the years-long love affair between Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan which had been subject to a superinjunction of its time and thus largely secret.

And directed by Ralph Fiennes who also stars as Dickens, it is a rather fine film indeed, eloquently restrained in its depiction of the emotional impact of him being, well, a cad. We open with Felicity Jones’ Nelly married to someone else at some point in the future but soon flash back to her late teenage years when trying to make it as an actress, her path fatefully crosses with the illustrious writer and his inflated ego.

What follows is ultimately a slow burn of a relationship, as she wrestles with the life-altering notion of becoming his mistress. And whilst [spoiler alert] she ultimately agrees with the tacit acknowledgement that he will and can never acknowledge her publicly, Fiennes and Morgan gently but purposefully remind us that she is not the only ‘invisible woman’ here, for Catherine Dickens and her ten children were very much still in the picture.

Joanna Scanlan is scorchingly good as the long-suffering Catherine, first indulging her husband as he throws himself wholeheartedly into the celebrity circus he can’t resist and then almost impossibly dignified as she reads the situation for what it is becoming. Against this, it is interesting to read a little more ambiguity into Jones’ performance as Nelly turns her nose up at the mistress of Charles’ best pal Wilkie Collins and frets about her own reputation whilst recognising the illicit pull of forbidden love.

There’s great work too from Kristin Scott Thomas and Amanda Hale as her mother and sister respectively, both trying to smooth the path for what they perhaps see is inevitable. And cinematographer Rob Hardy and production designer Maria Djurkovic do sterling work in evoking a living, breathing Victorian world that pulses with life.

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