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The Invisible Woman

January 17, 2014
The Invisible Woman

Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations. The name of Charles Dickens calls forth such wonderful stories, filled with detailed protagonists and fascinating supporting casts, and providing such insight into 19th-century English society at all levels. So, obviously, the most interesting story we can come up with for Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut The Invisible Woman is a muckracking sexual affair. This is En kongelig affære all over again.

The film sticks to a bare factual account of the affair that Dickens (Fiennes) carried on with Ellen “Nelly” Ternan (Felicity Jones). They met when she was in the cast of The Frozen Deep, a play by his protégé Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander), and he evidently fell hard for her. He starts making excuses to spend time with her, even walking across the English countryside to be near her.

Of course it catches the notice of her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), who tacitly approves as long as Nelly will be taken care of, as she’s no great shakes on the stage. Yes, they actually say that much; the only real attraction indicated on Dickens’ end is that she’s younger and prettier than his fat, old wife (Joanna Scanlan). Further, this goes unchallenged; Dickens’ evidently purely lustful attraction is not painted as exploitative or an indication of any character flaw of his.

On Nelly’s side, we have a young, mildly bookish woman who develops a schoolgirl crush on her favorite literary figure, and then actually gets to bed him as her reward since she is, again, incompetent as a creative person herself. There is no character here beside her love for the great genius man.

Fans of lush costume melodrama will find plenty to chew on here. The costume and set design teams have gone all out, and I admit it looks pretty great. But it’s all pretty surfaces and little real content. Then again, that may be an appropriate match for the way the movie renders Nelly.

You know what seems curiously absent for a story about one of the greatest writers of the English language? writing. Yes, Dickens does some rewrites on The Frozen Deep and some live readings of his works, but we see precious little of him actually creating anything. And if the whole Nelly Ternan affair is meant to be anything more than Victorian gossip, it must connect with Dickens’ writing. This is the period when he composed A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, two of his greatest works; how did his romance with Nelly affect them? On screen we see little but the most glib, superficial references, and even those are completely unmoored from the stories for an audience not already familiar with Dickens’ work.

And so we are left with a house of spun sugar: ornate, pretty, and appealing to a sweet tooth, but unsatisfying to any deeper sensibility. This isn’t Dickens; this aspires to be a dilettante’s reading of Austen.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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