The Invisible Woman review: sometimes it’s hard to be a woman

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The Invisible Woman green light Ralph Fiennes Felicity Jones

The story of Charles Dickens and his secret mistress is no romance, and no modest costume drama, either. It’s a tale of women being practical because they had to be.
I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast, love Dickens

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

His novels were full of life, and so was Charles Dickens himself… though not always in the most socially acceptable ways. Not for his restrictive Victorian times, and not necessarily in ways that would considered cool today, either. Dickens had a mistress for the last 12 years of his life, for instance, a fact dug up by biographer Claire Tomalin for her book The Invisible Woman, a relationship all but erased from history at the time in order to hide the scandal of it. Fittingly, then, this adaptation of that book — from director Ralph Fiennes, a masterful followup to his masterful debut Coriolanus, and screenwriter Abi Morgan (Shame, Tsunami: The Aftermath) — is not about the romance of that relationship, but how the participants coped with the scandalous aspect of it, presented in a way that challenges us to examine our own assumptions about what is right, what is wrong, and how we navigate the middle ground.

Fiennes, also starring as the writer, has a lot of compassion for Dickens, but only as a flawed, complicated man: this isn’t a terribly kind portrait of him as he finds himself in the uncomfortable position of falling in love with 18-year-old actress Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones: Breathe In, Hysteria), some 27 years his junior. As director and star, Fiennes (Skyfall, Great Expectations) seems to saying, “Well, maybe he was a bit of a jerk, but if so, this still was part of the life that informed his wonderful and enduring work.” The film is far, far kinder to the women around the author: his wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan: In the Loop, The Other Boleyn Girl), mother to his many children, who has been at his side since before he was famous and has clearly tolerated other dalliances; Frances Ternan (Kristin Scott Thomas: In the House, Bel Ami), Nelly’s mother, and an actress when that was considered a career on a par with “prostitute”; and Nelly, who’s not a terribly good actress and isn’t going to make it on the stage, so perhaps a life as a Great Man’s mistress would be a smart choice?

This is, above all else, a story about women being practical when they had few options for their own survival — it is Nelly’s mother who suggests that Nelly encourage their family friend Mr. Dickens in his affections, because she is not going to do better for herself. And while there is clear attraction on Charles’ part for Nelly, it’s not entirely obvious if it is returned with quite as much ardor by Nelly. Oh, she certainly likes and admires the man, which is more than a woman might expect when forging a marriage out of necessity. Yet marriage is out of the question here, as divorce is out of the question for Dickens: he’s simply too famous to enter into such an affront to public decency. One fascinating scene sees Dickens recognized at an outing to the races and mobbed by fans, and it’s hard not to appreciate that he was one of the first celebrities, and had to invent mechanisms for dealing with fame on a scale that perhaps no one else had ever achieved before.

Dickens’ friend, fellow writer Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander: “The Voorman Problem,” About Time), is more sanguine about the possibilities their elevated social position might offer. Collins doesn’t believe in marriage; Nelly is shocked that Dickens takes her to visit Collins and his mistress, Caroline Graves (Michelle Fairley: Philomena, Game of Thrones), who live together — openly! — as if they were husband and wife. “We have to break these conventions,” Collins implores Dickens. “We have to be the pioneers.” But it’s hard to be a pioneer: Dickens wasn’t ready for it. And it’s much harder for a woman, who is judged far more harshly than a man when she flouts convention (a fact that hasn’t changed much in the interim). The lengths to which Charles and Nelly go to hide their relationship become apparent late in the film: in an event in which the first impulse of lovers would be to comfort each other, they must pretend to be strangers, because they’re in public and his face is too well known.

This isn’t a relentlessly grim film; one early scene, a party at which Nelly and Charles first become acquainted, is a merry affair, like Mr. Fezziwig’s Christmas bash. It goes so late into the night that it’s morning when it ends. Who knew the Victorians stayed up all night partying? This may not be a melodramatic or romantic story, but it’s no modest costume drama, either. Some moments are so earthy that they’ll shock some viewers. But they’re meant to remind us that these are — were — real people, not cardboard cutouts who could be restrained by corsets, real or metaphoric, in everything they did.

viewed during the 57th BFI London Film Festival

based on The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]

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Fri, Feb 07, 2014 6:03pm

I think this must be the first time you’ve given a positive review to a film depicting a relationship between a man and a woman less than half his age. I’m impressed…

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  RogerBW
Fri, Feb 07, 2014 10:28pm

Well, the relationship really happened — no point in denying it. And the film is about the ramifications of it, with no intention of presenting it as ideal or romantic.