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The numerous works of Charles Dickens, perhaps the English language’s preeminent storyteller, have been turned into films and television over and over again for more than a century. “The Invisible Woman,” however, might be the first film to be made about the great man’s private life, and it turns out to be as compellingly dramatic as anything he put on the page.
More than that, as directed by and starring the superb Ralph Fiennes as Dickens and splendidly assisted by Britain’s Felicity Jones as the title character, “The Invisible Woman” is an exceptional film about love, longing and regret. It’s further proof, if proof were needed, that classic filmmaking done with passion, sensitivity and intelligence results in cinema fully capable of blowing you away.
If you’re familiar with Dickens’ life, you’ll recognize that the film shares its title with Claire Tomalin’s 1991 biography. That book astonished the literary world by connecting the dots and confirming what had been only the vaguest of rumors: that the celebrated writer, a man with 10 children and a reputation as a passionate defender of home and family, had for the last 13 years of his life a mistress he managed to keep secret from the world at large.
That would be a young actress named Ellen Ternan, familiarly known as Nelly. The two met in 1857 when Ternan was only 18 and the celebrated writer 45 and world famous. But, far from being the typical age-inappropriate fling, this was a difficult, near-impossible relationship that neither party rushed into glibly and whose emotional pitfalls and complexities the film does complete justice to.
“Invisible Woman” is Fiennes’ second time behind the camera (2011’s “Coriolanus” was his first), and he agreed to direct well before he agreed to star, something viewers will be hard-pressed to believe given how completely he inhabits the novelist’s persona.
Not only has Fiennes been made up to look exactly like Dickens (Jenny Shircore did makeup and hair design) but he’s also captured exactly what contemporaries characterized as Dickens’ distinguishing aspect: his prodigious, unstoppable energy.
Besides being perhaps the most famous novelist in the known world, Dickens was also a playwright, an amateur magician, a celebrated public reader of his own works, a theatrical impresario, a fundraiser for good causes and, if possible, more.
Fiennes starts by perfectly capturing the ebullient personality and restless, piercing eyes that made up Dickens’ galvanizing public face. But he is equally adept at the private Dickens, an uncertain, in some ways tormented man who was insecure and shy despite all his accomplishments.
It takes quite an actress to stand toe to toe with this kind of a performer, and Jones is up to the task. Though her work in two Drake Doremus-directed films, “Like Crazy” and “Breathe In,” has been exceptional, Jones is not as well known here as she is in the U.K. With a keenly expressive face that can express steeliness and disapproval as well as delicacy, Jones has the difficult task of playing Ternan at two different times of her life: She is both the 18-year-old ingénue who met Dickens and the fortysomething wife and mother who took a decade off her age and completely changed her life after the author died.
“The Invisible Woman’s” back-and-forth structure comes via Abi Morgan’s exemplary script. A deft writer at home in the widest variety of material — her credits include Steve McQueen’s sex addiction drama “Shame” and the Meryl Streep-starring Margaret Thatcher biopic “The Iron Lady” — Morgan has constructed a script that refuses to take sides but rather enables us to experience this story from every possible angle, to live every one of its lives.
“The Invisible Woman” begins in 1885 in Margate, a seaside English town. An unsettled woman is walking on the beach at a ferocious pace, gripped by something that will not let her rest.
This is Nelly Ternan Wharton (Jones), the wife of Margate School’s quiet headmaster, George Wharton (Tom Burke). Her walk makes her late for her commitment to oversee a schoolboy production of one of Dickens’ plays. She seems to know a lot about Dickens, but no one is surprised, for Wharton is proud of the fact that his wife was acquainted with the writer as a small child, or so he genuinely believes.
The film then flashes back to 1857 and the city of Manchester, where another Dickens play is going into production with help from young actress Nelly, her acting sisters and their savvy mother, Mrs. Ternan (an immaculate Kristin Scott Thomas).
The attraction between author and acolyte soon comes to be noticed by those closest to Dickens, including his weary wife, Catherine (a superb Joanna Scanlan), and his best friend, novelist Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander, one of Fiennes’ close friends). But the extreme difficulty of this situation is also on all minds, and “The Invisible Woman” focuses on the complexity of the choice of action, especially for Nelly, who at one point tells Dickens point blank, “You see a freedom I do not see.”
This willingness to examine all sides of the situation, to understand the sexual power dynamics of the period and to give Catherine Dickens an especially poignant speech about sharing the man you love with his voracious public, underscores the determination to be fair to everyone that is one of the things Fiennes must have insisted on.
Everything about “The Invisible Woman,” from the lived-in re-creation of Victorian Britain (production designed by Maria Djurkovic, photographed by Rob Hardy) to the convincing work by the entire cast, point to a director who brings precision and commitment to his work. The fact that Fiennes is also a commanding actor giving a compelling performances is icing on the cake.
MPAA rating: R, for some sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Playing: In limited release