My knowledge of Charles Dickens doesn’t extend much further than Great Expectations, the novel that turned me off from him. Fortunately, director Ralph Fiennes didn’t know much about him either, with all his research on the man conducted after he signed on to make The Invisible Woman. This means that, as a non-specialist, Fiennes’ movie is not exclusively Dickensian, as it would had it been chaired by a expert, and it stays on the right side of alienation for those who only know the basics. Clearly there would be more to feast upon for those more familiar than I am, yet I never felt as though my ignorance caused me to miss out on much throughout the film.
It also helps that the movie’s focus isn’t entirely on Dickens at all, but rather Ellen “Nelly” Ternan (Felicity Jones), the young woman with whom he has a quiet but passionate affair. Whenever anyone shares the shot with Jones, she is the one gaining the most attention from the camera, and much of the early section of the plot is told through her facial expressions. Fiennes’ appropriately showy performance as the author would have stolen the show in an actual Dickens biopic, yet here we’re witnessing the struggle of the partner he can’t be seen with for the sake of both their reputations.
Indeed, the movie probes into the suffocated role of women during Victorian England. Mrs. Dickens, still on the scene when her husband meets Nelly, keeps quiet for most of her earliest appearances in the film, her first attempts at conversation shunned as all attention remains on Charles. She is treated by her family as a mere childbearer, with Charles introducing his entire family by name, and her as “Oh yes… my wife.” She’s not the only sidelined female, however; when Nelly is yelling at Charles on the street at midnight, a police officer approaches and asks Charles whether that woman is bothering him, which is interesting as in today’s society the question would be rightly addressed to the opposite party.
This isn’t progressive politics, however. Fiennes and screenwriter Abi Morgan aren’t making a grand feminist statement, but simply use this outlook on gender roles to illustrate Nelly’s position, as well as the trap she has fallen into by reciprocating a married celebrity’s advances. The Invisible Woman is very much a discussion of romance that argues for the freedom to express love without any boundaries. Characters argue around Nelly’s situation, and Nelly herself tries to stay out of it, but her infatuation for Dickens allows him to get his way, while her feeble position in society prevents her from getting hers. As well as gender, this could well be applicable to the topic of miscegenation and homosexuality. It isn’t an exploration of celebrity trappings (although it nearly is) as much as a peek into the little-seen lives of those caught in a helpless orbit around figures in the public eye.
Still, Nelly is not an entirely weak character. As a way of stating the importance of women in society, understated in the 1850s, Nelly manages to shake the lives of those around her, particularly Dickens’, in more ways than sexual fulfilment. Without even being allowed to do much, she inspires both endings of Great Expectations, channels her personal journey through a rapturously acclaimed direction of a Dickens play, and also illuminates the life of a hardcore Dickens fanatic through the acknowledgement of her romance with the author. In a sense, it undermines partiarchy by highlighting the missing links which Nelly provides and symbolises. It is, then, an implicit feminist statement coated in a beautifully delivered romance, one that says “If women can make such good from so little, why weren’t they given more freedom?”
Much of the film is, in fact, implicit, with a complete avoidance of obvious payoffs. The set pieces are seamless with the rest of the movie while finding strength in their quietness, and the most gripping sequences become distinguishable only once you realise you can’t get them out of your head. With his second feature, Fiennes has created a mature, human work that comes off as a less invigorating yet emotionally deeper Shakespeare in Love. Secrecy is one of the key aspects of the movie, and every set is covered in shadows as if to suggest there are always more secrets hiding in plain sight. Its tricks are subtle, and on the surface it’s little more than a straightforward period romance, yet there’s an altogether different feel than would be expected. It’s worth checking out if you’re after an original, interesting romance for the evening.
The Invisible Woman was directed by Ralph Fiennes, written by Abi Morgan (based on the novel of the same name by Claire Tomalin) and stars Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristen Scott Thomas and Tom Hollander. It lasts for 111 minutes and is a production of BBC Films, Headline Pictures, Magnolia Mae Films and Taeoo Entertainment. Distributed in the UK on DVD and Blu-Ray by Lions Gate. Originally released in 2014.