A tale of two lovers
Felicity Jones and Ralph Fiennes. Picture: Supplied

Film
The Invisible Woman (M)
Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas
Director Ralph Fiennes
REVIEW MARK NAGLAZAS

The picture of Charles Dickens in the popular imagination is of a rather staid, lavishly whiskered family man and stern critic of the appalling conditions suffered by the poor in Victorian England.

However, the Dickens who emerges in Ralph Fiennes' The Invisible Woman is an exuberant man of the theatre, a relentless socialiser who was always the last one to leave a social gathering - today he would be called a party animal - and an enthusiastic embracer of his international celebrity.

Even more surprising is the movie's revelation that Dickens had a mistress, an actress decades his junior named Ellen "Nelly" Ternan who he first saw performing with her mother and two sisters in London's Haymarket Theatre in 1857.

Dickens later cast her in a production of Wilkie Collins' The Frozen Deep, which he helped to write as well as direct and play one of the roles. Sparks flew and the 45-year-old Dickens tumbled into an affair with Nelly who, at 18, was only little older than his daughter Kate.

If we believe Fiennes' deeply romantic movie, based on a 1990 book of the same name by Claire Tomalin which convincingly teased out the secret of the relationship between Dickens and Nelly, this is a love story for the ages, one of those exquisitely repressed affairs that makes the hearts of true romantics beat quicker.

Even though The Invisible Woman is only Fiennes' second film behind the camera, he has learnt well from the men who directed him in similar stories of illicit love, such as Anthony Minghella in The English Patient and Neil Jordan in The End of the Affair, allowing an ocean of feeling to swell up between Dickens and Nelly but never allowing it to spill into melodrama.

Fiennes has also clearly been inspired by Jane Campion's Oscar-winning The Piano and the John Keats biopic Bright Star, breaking free of the conventions of the English period drama on several occasions to imbue The Invisible Woman with a delicacy, intimacy and tenderness and make it a work of cinema and not something starchy and ready-made for television.

The Piano is invoked early on when an older, married Nelly (Felicity Jones) is living in Margate and, dressed from head to toe in black, wanders along a windswept beach and recalls her relationship with Dickens, who had died 13 years before in 1870.

Nelly recalls Dickens' production of The Frozen Deep, in which she has a role, and the sparkling afterparty, with the gregarious, good-natured author (also played by Fiennes) leading the company in a rousing singalong. He's the life of the party and the wide-eyed Nelly, who has read all of Dickens' novels, is smitten.

Astutely, Fiennes and screenwriter Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady) keep the couple at arm's length for much of the movie as Victorian probity prevents Dickens from leaving his wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), who has become overweight, housebound and little interested in sex after 10 children.

And while Nelly's mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) is quietly encouraging of the relationship - she fears for the girl's future and regards the rich and famous author as a good catch - the canny old girl gives Dickens a stern warning about maintaining propriety and not ruining her daughter's reputation.

Even when the couple do come together, Fiennes handles it with great skill and sensitivity, acknowledging the conventions of Victorian society - there's a terrific scene in which Catherine reveals to Nelly her knowledge of the affair without ever stating it - yet depicting Dickens as a proto- bohemian, an artist who would have been a different man if born a few decades later.

Fiennes could have tumbled over the top playing such a larger-than-life figure but he finds just the right scale, imbuing him with amusing theatrical flourishes in front of his adoring public and ratcheting him down imperceptibly in those scenes in which he woos Nelly and when they become a couple, evolving into a tender lover.

But The Invisible Woman belongs to Jones, who has the far more challenging role of a teenager overwhelmed by Dickens as both an artist and a man yet is unable to speak about it and have their love publicly acknowledged. Jones' face says one thing but her body and her soul scream desire and desperation to be a part of the Dickens' world.

And Fiennes and Morgan underscore her erasure from history (until recently, that is) by suggesting that Dickens drew on the frustration and tragedy of their relationship while composing Great Expectations, his masterpiece.

It is not an exact parallel but there's enough of Dickens and Nelly in Pip and Estella for us to return to Great Expectations and see it not merely as a work of the imagination but flowing from a man who had a lot more going on in his personal life than we might have imagined.

The Dickens who emerges in Ralph Fiennes' The Invisible Woman is an exuberant man of the theatre.

The West Australian

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