Were it a more tawdry or tabloid-y film, a sure danger in dealing with the secret affair of a famous older man and a teenaged woman, one might feel proper indulging the temptation to say The Invisible Woman puts the (ahem) back in Dickens. Alas, though, this film directed by and featuring Ralph Fiennes as the 19th century British author is unexpectedly graceful and even impressionistic at times, a gauzily sensuous period piece which goes lightly on the scandal-invoking narrative at hand.
Felicity Jones, glowing with a radiant beauty, tenderness, and conspicuous intelligence, stars as Ellen Ternan, the young subject of the affections of the middle-aged Dickens, already well-entrenched as a celebrity of letters and well-settled with wife and children. Disenchanted with his listless bride, Dickens falls for the well-read and witty — not to mention luminous — teen, an actress who meets him through the theater. Things progress, in the heart and bedroom departments, but their affair is kept private, through veils of secrecy, pseudonyms, and life undercover in France. In fact, the story itself was kept secret by the Dickens family and trust until the 1930s, adding intrigue to this clandestine chapter in the Dickens story.
Yet Ternan remains the invisible one: “My name is whispered with yours, yet I have nothing,” the young mistress tells him at one point. We survey the story from the framing device of flashback, from the perspective of Ternan’s own settled life as wife and teacher.
Fiennes, who has previously shown directorial savvy with his Shakespearean film adaptation, Coriolanis, successfully weaves a spell on the screen with the aid of impressive costumes, sets, minimalist use of music, and stellar cinematographer Rob Hardy. As Dickens, Fiennes the actor, brings an inner warmth and subtlety of characterization, a calm amidst potential storm of social scandal.
No, it’s not the best of films, but it’s far from the worst that could come out of this tale.