In his second directorial outing Ralph Fiennes explores the affair between the Victorian era’s most successful writer, Charles Dickens (Fiennes) and his younger lover, Nelly Ternan (Jones). Based on the book by Claire Tomalin, the film is composed of flashbacks suffered by Nelly years after the death of Dickens, which take her back to their relationship which was hidden away from the public eye. As far as historical dramas go, The Invisible Woman should not disappoint with its sensitivity and intrigue, aptly capturing the atmosphere of a blossoming romantic affair between a literary celebrity and an unassuming aspiring actress.
The film successfully gives an insight into Dickens’ private life, vivacity and love for theatre and melodramas alongside other Victorian pastimes. Costume design, which has justly received an Oscar nomination, and the setting of the film also deserve recognition, both essential features of any accomplished period drama. The cinematography is consistently artistic and thoughtful, with Fiennes depicting intimacy through glances and close-ups, whilst resisting the urge to over-sexualise the affair.
From the moment the illicit affair begins between Charles and Nelly, the film seems to lose focus, its pace noticeably decreases and admittedly my attention dwindled. I was not entirely persuaded by the repetition of certain scenes, such as Nelly reminiscing about the affair after Dickens’ death, whilst metaphorically and physically escaping from her seemingly stifling and awkward marriage by pacing the beach in Margate. It all just seemed a tad too obvious. Similarly in another scene, Dickens finds himself walking through a poorer street in London and seeing dirt-faced children and likewise street urchins who look directly plucked out of Oliver Twist. The questionable relevance of these few minutes not only left me confused, but they seemed forced and overly-sentimental, in an attempt to show us his inspiration for such stories. All in all, plot progression was stagnant and the scene seemed awfully out of place in what is meant to be a story revolving around the private lives of Charles Dickens and his mistress.
Despite these occasional lapses in dynamism, Fiennes’ portrayal of the frustrated author effectively demonstrates the yearning for escape from his unhappy marriage. Equally, Nelly Ternan’s mother (Scott Thomas) and Dickens’ friend and contemporary Wilkie Collins (Hollander), who also has a lover out of wedlock, provide a solid background for the story, and both actors give respectable performances.
The film flows and maintains interest thanks to its direction. Despite its lack of consistency, it will appeal to fans of well thought-out period dramas and poignant forbidden romances.