A moody treatise on 19th Century gender politics disguised as a true-story account of the love affair between Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan, The Invisible Woman is beautifully crafted but so low-key and subtle that it barely raises a pulse; the filmmakers have carefully avoided falling into the trap of Victorian melodrama, but they’ve done so at the expense of audience engagement.
Chief among those filmmakers is Ralph Fiennes, who stars as Dickens and directs his second feature after the striking Shakespeare adaptation of Coriolanus in 2011. He’s working from a script by Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady), based on the 1990 novel of the same name by Claire Tomalin.
The titular character is Ellen Ternan (Felicity Jones), though the actual invisible woman here may well be Dickens’ wife, played by Joanna Scanlan. At its worst, the script goes into unnecessary detail in describing just why Dickens took his mistress: his wife suffered frequent headaches, declined romantic companionship, and, as a strange (brief) nude scene seems to imply, was just plain unattractive.
Ternan, in any event, was the youngest daughter of Catherine Ternan (Kristin Scott Thomas, quickly falling into maternal roles after this and Only God Forgives) and, along with her two sisters, an aspiring actress. In 1857, “Nelly” first came to meet the famed author during a stage production, and the two develop a quickly-escalating friendship.
It helps to have some background information about the Dickens-Ternan romance before going in: Morgan’s script is so gun-shy in its characterization of the relationship that we often don’t know what, exactly, is going on, or even how the characters feel about each other. The film is not so much an adaptation of the Tomalin novel as a civil re-creation of selected vignettes.
And while those vignettes are beautifully shot and composed, and genuinely evocative, the parts never add up to a cohesive whole. There are pointed insights here and there, and ruminations on social etiquette, gender politics, and Victorian-era mores – but nothing substantial enough to hang the film on. With the central relationship so subdued, the story struggles to maintain interest by itself.
Acting is uniformly first-rate: Fiennes makes for a genteel and likable Dickens, even though the film seems to go out of its way to justify his infidelity and other questionable actions. Jones (Like Crazy) is a real revelation here, not just matching Fiennes beat-for-beat but carrying the narrative bookend without him during those long, chilly walks on Margate beach.
Tom Hollander and Michelle Fairley feature in memorable supporting roles as Dickens’ friend and playwright Wilkie Collins and his longtime partner Caroline Graves; The Invisible Woman is at its best when pitting Nelly against her female contemporaries: Caroline, whose lifestyle she vehemently disagrees with, and Catherine Dickens (Scanlan), who she can barely look in the eyes, for much different reasons.
A beautifully-crafted production, Michael O’Connor’s costume design deservedly earned an Oscar nomination. Cinematography by Rob Hardy is vibrant and striking (in opposition to the monotone palette we often expect from this kind of thing); similarly, Ilan Eshkeri’s original score occasionally jolts the film to life. From a technical standpoint, the filmmaking is just about faultless.
The Invisible Woman has opened to almost unanimous (albeit mild) praise, though most reviewers are aware that this kind of treatment of the material isn’t going to appeal to most audiences. It’s an exquisitely-detailed but cool and uninvolving piece that will appeal to a select few (Dickens scholars ought to eat it up), and offer mere fleeting rewards for others.