“The Invisible Woman”
Though the title would imply that this
film is about Charles Dickens’ long-rumored lover, Ellen Turnan,
“Nellie” (Felicity Jones) isn’t actually the alpha character here.
Instead, it’s Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes), at the prime of his
incredibly successful career as a writer, full of wit, wisdom, energy, fame,
fortune, playfulness, celebrity status, and yes, a certain hubris.
The kind that would assume he is entitled to take on an 18-year-old
lover at age 45. And though, in the
Victorian Era, he would be required to undergo certain subterfuges, like
traveling in France under an assumed name, and claiming after a train wreck
that he wasn’t traveling with “Nellie,” still, he separated from his
wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), which itself caused a great scandal, and
then set up his lover in a separate house, so he could visit her frequently
(and leave for publicity tours whenever he felt like it).
There’s a poignant scene in the film
where Nellie meets Catherine, and Catherine advises her that Charles” real
mistress is his adoring public, and that he would, eventually, leave them both
for his “true love”: being a famous
celebrity. The plethora of Dickens’
book-reading tours in his later years would seem to underscore that opinion.
Nonetheless, Dickens is portrayed here
is a kind of dour de force, a human dynamo and irresistible charmer who just
wants to have it all, and frequently does, so his disdain for Victorian
morality is predictable and apparent.
The irony is that his celebrated
mistress is portrayed as struggling mightily with a guilty conscience.
In a way, she has difficulty being “in the moment” no matter what
she does: if she gives in to his
blandishments, she feels like the “scarlet woman” (and she did indeed have
to also play the role of “invisible woman” as well).
But, she does find herself flattered by his attentions, and attracted
to his compelling bonhomie, and compelled by his creative artistry, so she
succumbs, but occasionally is seized by paroxysms of regret, which hardly
makes her enthusiasm consistent or their relationship idyllic.
Much of this film is a retrospective
from the present, when Dickens has long since died and Nellie, no longer a
teenager, has now married a respectable man and had a son by him, but she
undergoes these melancholy mood swings where she keeps recalling with fondness
those early years of being Dicken’s “invisible woman.”
So she’s not really “in the moment” with her own husband, either.
She does, however, consider herself somewhat of an expert on Dicken’s
many writings (since he read many of them to her aloud), and now directs
children’s’ plays paraphrasing his famous works.
(The only thing worse than bad acting is bad acting pretending to be
Though the camera loves Felicity Jones,
this film doesn’t especially portray her character in a particularly
sympathetic light. Her family,
especially her Mother, Frances (Kristin Scott Thomas), is strangely supportive
of her affair, being themselves under the spell of Mr. Dicken’s celebrity,
and also implying that Nell’s prospects as an actress aren’t very bright
(this from a whole family of starving actors).
The film keeps jumping back and forth in time sequences, and is very
quiet (and somewhat stilted) in most of its dialogue, and the opportunity to
impress the viewer with the white-heat magnetism of the romance is largely
lost in the shuttle. In the one
fully-clothed lovemaking scene, she doesn’t seem to be enjoying herself at
all. So, the viewer is left with the
obvious question: What’s the point?
Well, presumably, to give us a snapshot
portrait of Dickens in his prime in Victorian England.
This we get. The rest sort of
fades into hoop-skirt oblivion.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St.
Stephen’s Presbyterian Church,