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The Invisible Woman

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Dec 27, 2013
Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones star in ’The Invisible Woman’
Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones star in ’The Invisible Woman’  (Source:Sony Pictures Classics)

We might think of Charles Dickens as a great social satirist with a deep and genuine concern for the underclass; we might also think of him as a great artist, one of the first to bring timeless literature to the common people (half-rooted, as it were, in the lives of common people).

What we may not recall is that Dickens drew a great deal of his creative energy from his status as a frustrated actor (he found an outlet in readings from his books). What we might never have known is that, at the age of 45, he was smitten by an 18-year-old actress, Ellen Ternan, and, while the details are quite sketchy, rumor and speculation have it that the two were lovers for more than a decade and even had a child together, a stillborn son.

Those juicy life passages are given dramatic treatment in the Ralph Fiennes-directed "The Invisible Woman," based on an account of the same name by Claire Tomalin. (The book also gave rise to a stage dramatization, by Simon Grey, called after one of Dickens' own novels -- "Little Nell.") With the new film, Fiennes makes up for the missteps of his earlier directorial effort, an inspired but uneven film adaptation of Shakespeare's "Coriolanus" that's set in a modern, if parallel-universe, version of the world.

Felicity Jones plays the part of Ellen "Nelly" Ternan, whom we meet years after Dickens' death. Ternan, now married, is in the habit of taking brisk walks along the seaside; "I set quite a pace," she tells an older friend, who offers to accompany her on one such constitutional and lend an ear should she wish to share whatever is clearly troubling her.

What's on her mind is the past. Though Ternan claims to have known Dickens as a child, the truth -- as it unspools in the film, at least -- is that the two of them had been long-time secret lovers, in flagrant defiance of Victorian mores. As the movie tells the story, Dickens was a social reformer whose sympathy for the plight of the common man extended to an embrace of the world as a fallen, imperfect, and profoundly human place -- a place of infants born out of wedlock, single mothers forced into prostitution, dreams deferred or abandoned, free love as a daring current gaining force beneath society's morally strict surface.

His compassion stems in part from his own imperfect life, which involves a loveless marriage and, eventually, an affair that threatens to erupt into scandal. Dickens denies the rumors, but avoids being a hypocrite; and his passion for Ellen comes to the surface so slowly, with such a careful tread, that unlike a film set in our current age you spend a good deal of time wondering when that incipient flame is finally going to burst into life.

This slow dawning works in the film's favor; Dickens is not portrayed as a horn dog, but (to an extent, anyway) as the lonesome man he says he is, looking for a lover with intelligence and artistic discernment. His affection for the young Ellen grows over time, perhaps sparked in part by the way Ellen's own stage career is on the verge of fizzling out thanks to a lack of acting talent on her part. But the young woman has more than a casual reader's interest and insight into his writings, and as she becomes a sounding board for Dickens, his love blossoms.

Ellen's mother -- a professional actress trying to shepherd her three daughters into successful, or at least sustainable, careers in the theater -- sees Dickens' affections taking shape and warns him against tarnishing Ellen's reputation. At the same time, seeing little prospect for Ellen's future in the family business, she recognizes that an alliance with a wealthy man like Dickens could secure Ellen's future. It's a man's world, never more so than in Victorian times, and if a man is what a young woman needs, she could do a whole lot worse -- the fact that Dickens is already married, to a Reubenesque red-head named Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), notwithstanding.

Jones turns in a performance of extremes: Youthful and exuberant; older and hard-bitten with regret; enthralled, then frostily hostile with anger and disappointment; tenderly transported by love. She's wonderful.

Fiennes, no less, presents a Charles Dickens of many hues -- often larkish as a boy, but given to flashes of irritation, or forlorn moments. His direction has lapses in tone, but an abundance of striking moments: Dickens as a prototype for the modern celebrity, caught in a sudden terrifying crush of admirers; Nellie's voluptuous bustle as she stamps along the beach, a prominent, eclipsing form of acceptable plumage that hides everything real about her save a clenched hand in an equally concealing glove; an encounter between an unloved wife and a beautiful, passionately desired girl -- a scene that's mournful, and shocked, and anchored by a beautiful piece of jewelry.

There are also many splendidly lit moments by cinematographer Ron Hardy, who relies on natural light when appropriate, but doesn't get Dogma 95 about it, and who paints scenes with a slightly roseate haze, as if they were memories or dreams (and indeed, most of the film is a flashback).

Movies about historical figures (Mozart in "Amadeus," for example) tend to exaggerate and distort, or else to miss the things that make those figures intriguing to begin with (as keeps happening with the spate of recent movies about Kerouac and his crowd). What happens here, however, is that we're given a film about two people who have fallen in love -- inappropriately, many of their contemporaries would say. One of them happens to be famous, and this complicates their affair, forcing it into the shadows (and, for a time, abroad). How factual this movie might be is open for debate, but as a work of artistic expression it tells us a story that never loses potency -- the eternal story of wanting what you're not supposed to have, grasping at something that might bring everything down round you, and being someone in private quite different from your public persona. That's a state of affairs one need not live in Victorian times to appreciate.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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