*Editor’s note: Our review of The Invisible Woman originally ran during this year’s NYFF, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens Christmas day in limited theatrical release.*
It’s best to assume that when Ralph Fiennes took on the story of Charles Dickens (Fiennes) and his teen lover Ellen “Nelly” Ternan (Felicity Jones) for his The Invisible Woman, he didn’t intend for the film’s big takeaway to be that the beloved British author was basically a big jerk, at least when it came to matters of the heart. And yet, that’s the unexpected result of the apparently fact-based tale, a “romance” devoid of emotion that fails to capture any of the spirit or intelligence of Dickens’ own works. While the film has some very compelling source material, including a book by Claire Tomalin and a script from Abi Morgan (who penned the wonderful Shame and the laughably bad The Iron Lady), it ultimately falls spectacularly flat.
Cold, emotionless, and strangely paced, the film thankfully features breathtaking cinematography and one hell of a supporting performance by the real invisible woman in Dickens’ life – his own wife. But this is meant to be a film about a life-changing romance, and it simply doesn’t deliver on that front, no matter how many times Jones wanders a beach with a haunted expression on her face or Fiennes acts out in a horrible way simply because he’s a man in love.
The film starts at the end, with Nelly a married woman who spends her days alternately wandering a nearby beach (looking haunted while also walking quite swiftly, an accomplishment that shouldn’t be overlooked) and teaching the young men that attend her husband’s school (including making them put on Dickens’ own plays). Nelly has got issues, haunting issues that result in her inability to speak about the long-dead Dickens without looking like she’s going to vomit and keep her from being an active participant in her present life. She’s stuck in the past, so it’s not altogether shocking that the film routinely jumps from Nelly’s present back to the period in her life when she knew Dickens, and while that framing device works fine in the beginning (especially when Jones is tasked with portraying a woman haunted by her past just be way of pained facial expressions, which she is legitimately very good at), it’s eventually grating and strangely unable to contribute much insight into the film’s subject matter.
The youngest daughter in a family of actresses, Nelly meets Dickens when she unexpectedly serves as understudy for her sister, recently snapped up by a larger theater company. The pair forms a kind of bond early on, with Dickens seeing “something” in the teen actress (even as her inability to act becomes a running joke) and Nelly dreamily devouring both his works and his direction. Over a period of many years, the Ternan ladies (and Nelly in particular, obviously) become special favorites to the author, and while Nelly and her benefactor keep their emotions at bay for a significant slice of time, the rumors of Dickens’ affection swirl until they finally burst forth in a particularly unsexy scene of heavy breathing.
Dramatically speaking, there’s a fine line between romance and the overwrought and immature, and The Invisible Woman is unable to effectively straddle such a line. Dickens and Jones exhibit zero chemistry, making their romance unbelievable and uninteresting. For a film about a forbidden love, this is a tremendous problem, and it proves nearly insurmountable for the production.
Fiennes’ portrayal of Dickens is historically accurate, at least in the first half of the film (it’s hard to know exactly how he behaved during the most intimate moments with Nelly), with the author coming across as welcoming, entertaining, and nearly magical in both his professional abilities and his genial countenance. If Dickens was throwing a party, you wanted to be there. If Dickens was having a reading, it was a can’t-miss event. This larger than life persona also works when it comes to Dickens’ immense and intense fame – like a Victorian era rock star, the man was swarmed by fans wherever he went, and the effect and influence of fame on his life (and relationships) is certainly discussed, though never fully mined.
Dickens’ cruelty and callousness slowly reveals itself as the film goes on (and as his feelings for Nelly ostensibly deepen), with the author eventually pulling out such terrible tricks as making his wife Catherine (the wonderful Joanna Scanlan, who turns in a beautifully evolving performance, the very best in the film) deliver a gift to Nelly so she will finally “understand,” building a literal wall between he and Catherine in their family home, and finally announcing their separation in the newspaper (making it literally news to Catherine). Basically, Dickens comes across as a first class asshole and Nelly, for all her early protestations (and the voiced worries of her mother, played forgettably by Kristin Scott Thomas, who is rarely as underused as she is here), reads as a starstruck child unable to fully comprehend the horrible fallout of her life choices.
The film attempts to speak to questions much bigger than “simple” infidelity, like the price and value of fame, the upending of societal conventions, and the consuming nature of secrets, but while Fiennes and Morgan frequently present that material, it’s never addressed in a satisfying manner. There’s also a tremendously uncomfortable power dynamic at play here – Dickens was older, a man, wealthy, and very famous, while Nelly was a teen, a woman, financially unstable, and a tremendous fan of the man and his work – but, again, none of that is fully explored.
For all its flaws, The Invisible Woman does deliver when it comes to the technical. Visually speaking, it’s just a marvel, beautiful, striking, and gorgeously framed, and Fiennes’ best work is surely behind the camera. It also reads as meticulously historically accurate, resplendent with sets, locations, costumes, and hairstyles that make it feel very real indeed, at least when it comes to such important details. The Invisible Woman may not be a film worth watching, but it’s very much a film worth seeing.
The Upside: The film is visually stunning, complete with consistently well-composed shots and breathtaking landscapes; Joanna Scanlan’s performance is a surprising slow burn that pays off big time; the costumes and sets are wonderfully authentic and were clearly meticulously researched.
The Downside: Emotionally empty, Fiennes and Jones exhibit zero chemistry, the film’s screenplay addresses many “big” issues but never fully fleshes them out, the time-framing device loses steam and meaning very quickly.
On the Side: The real Ellen Ternan did eventually marry George Wharton Robinson after Dickens’ death – but she lied to him about much more than her relationship to Dickens. Ternan also lied to her husband about her actual age – telling Wharton Robinson that she was twenty-three, when she was really thirty-seven (an insane lie that clearly aided in his belief that she knew Dickens as a child).