An unexciting secret
Do not look for passion in Ralph Fiennes’ second outing as director. It’s a tepid account of Charles Dickens’ thirteen-year affair with a young actress, Ellen Ternan, in which the children’s costumes, the Victorian interiors, and an accurately staged train wreck are more interesting than the main action. Fiennes himself plays Dickens, and Felicity Jones plays Ellen or Nelly. The Invisible Woman, unlike Fiennes’ directorial debut, a raw modern-day staging of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, is a worshipful costume piece that barely has a pulse. Arty moments — Ellen pacing on the dunes, blurry extreme closeups, and surges of ridiculously loud string music — do not alter the conventionality of the whole. Kristen Scott Thomas as Ellen’s mother Frances Ternan and Tom Hollander as Wilkie Collins are among the actors lost amid the maundering and gloom.
Things begin badly with a pedestrian framing passage of Ternan years later when she is married with kids and she and her husband run a school at Margate (though East Sussex is the location used in the film). Then we’re switched to years earlier and a new set of people, when Dickens spots the eighteen-year-old in a play, and we eventually learn that she, her two elder sisters, and their mother (Scott Thomas) all tour, but she’s the least talented. History recounts that Ellen was a vibrant and intelligent woman. This screenplay by Abi Morgan (based on a book by Claire Tomalin) conveys only that she worshipped Dickens’ writing — and wasn’t such a good actress. Eventually the writer supported her, she stopped acting, and they remained lovers till he died in 1870 leaving her (not mentioned in the film, which is vague about dates) with an income for life.
When the two meet Dickens is at the height of his fame and is rich from his books and reading tours. He has ten children. His wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan, excellent but like others, wasted) has grown fat. The actress is forced to appear briefly nude, apparently to explain why Dickens might find her no longer attractive. Dickens pursues meetings and Catherine and Frances notice his interest in the girl. This is not exciting to watch. A highlight, such as it is, is an evening when the two stay up late alone counting money Dickens has raised for illegitimate children. Before that a brief encounter between Dickens and a prostitute (whom he primly rebuffs) and a tableau of dirty street children is the only sequence of a “Dickensian” world beyond the cushy tameness of the film.
History recounts that matters came to a head when a piece of jewelry meant as a gift from Dickens to the young woman was delivered by mistake to Catherine. The film gives Catherine the further humiliation of being sent by Dickens to deliver the jewel to Ellen and acknowledge the relationship. She also explains that for her husband, the public role as great author may outweigh personal ones. This is telling, rather than showing. But it has been shown that Dickens broadcast his separation from Catherine in a newspaper column, and that is how the family found out about it.
The toothy young Jones was Cordelia in the feature film Brideshead Revisited and Miranda in Julie Taymor’s Tempest. She has radiance and youth (though actually thirty) but gets no interesting lines or strong scenes. But the point, though it undercuts the romance, is that Nelly is old fashioned and reticent. By the time she gives in we may have lost interest. And then after all the delay the full-on affair is rushed through. Maybe it’s not the point. But then what is? It’s hastily shown that Dickens installs Ellen in a house. They finally have sex, eighty minutes in, she gets pregnant (and wanders in the grass) and the baby dies in infancy, in France (a conjecture the film insists on). Yet it’s hard to understand what he’s talking about when Dickens says Ellen has been all his inspiration for a very long time, felt in every line he writes. The screenplay does not bring to life that inspiration.
The Staplehurst rail crash on 9 June 1865, so nicely recreated here with a dramatic mash-up of period-style railway cabinetry, comes when Dickens and Ternan are regularly traveling together. It shows their affair remains secret. She’s injured and apparently in shock, yet he leaves her and pretends he is traveling alone.
None of this is a flattering picture of Charles Dickens. The reason for this tale being a subject of fascination, the topic of a play, two TV docudramas, a number of books, and this film, is not because so much is known (all correspondence and records surrounding it were destroyed) or that it’s a great romance, but because Dickens is a writer of such importance in English fiction and because until all Dickens’ children had died it was kept a secret. Avoid this film and watch instead Terrance Davies’ superb screen version of Terrance Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea. Hopefully Fiennes will drop the Masterpiece Theatre schtick and surprise us again as he did with Coriolanus.
The Invisible Woman, 111 mins., debuted at Telluride in Aug., showed at Toronto in Sept., and also 9 Oct. at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where it was screened for this review. The NYFF is also presenting a tribute to Ralph Fiennes the evening of 9 Oct. at Alice Tully Hall. The film releases in the US Christmas 2013, and in the UK 7th Feb. 2014. Sony Pictures Classics, of course.
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Writers: Abi Morgan (screenplay), Claire Tomalin (book)
Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas
Runtime: 111 min