As a huge fan of both Ralph Fiennes and Charles Dickens, I was rocking in my seat with glee at the prospect of Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens. Biopics such as this need to be handled carefully, especially when their subjects are these kinds of legendary, almost mythic figures, as Dickens was. If anyone has the skill to do his life justice, Fiennes most certainly does, and I couldn’t be more pleased.
Like his 2011 Shakespeare adaptation, Coriolanus, Fiennes both directs and stars in The Invisible Woman. The film is based on a book of the same name written by Claire Tomalin which explores the unique and often turbulent relationship between Charles Dickens and his close friend, and eventually lover, Nelly Ternan. Interestingly, Fiennes had confessed he was more or less ignorant of Dickens’ works until he was cast in a 2012 adaptation of Great Expectations. After the typical merry-go-round of negotiations, Fiennes finally decided to both direct and star in the production, and brings an enchanting vitality to both endeavors.
Naturally, Fiennes plays a masterful Charles Dickens in what might be one of the highlights of his career thus far. He has a way of infusing Dickens’ character with such an apparent exuberance and passion that the performance is nothing less than a joy to watch. More than that, he succeeds in bringing to life one of the most cherished writers in western literature, portraying him as a very real, flawed, hassled, human being whose lofty dreams prove incompatible with the conventions of the era in which he lived. Playing opposite Fiennes is English actress Felicity Jones. The interesting thing about Jones’ performance is that during the first half of the film, you’d be forgiven for thinking that her portrayal of Nelly has quite a limited range of emotion and what might even be a reflection of some of Dickens’ own literary heroines like Esther Summerson- an unshakably gentle and sweet young woman- but rather devoid of passion. As the film progresses though, we begin to see that Nelly’s stoicism was really just a disguise as powerful emotions simmered away inside. Ultimately, the chemistry between these two is electric and succeeds in carrying the film almost on it’s own.
The plot, such as it is, is deceptively simple. Virtually the only conflict being explored throughout the film is the burgeoning romance between Dickens and Ternan, the eponymous ‘invisible woman.’ The story focuses on several key events in their relationship as Dickens fame grows throughout England, and subsequently his secret relationship becomes more and more difficult to conceal. What the film lacks in complexity, it makes up for in charisma, and it presents itself so well that I can’t fault it for that- which means I’ll just have to fault it for something else.
The pacing could charitably be described as deliberate and uncharitably described as slow, not helped by a really jarring moment in the third act which was probably meant to help pick up the pace but instead comes across as a little ham-fisted. Likewise, some jumps forwards in time work as part of a framing device but I feel that the film would have worked just as well without it and likewise without needing to sacrifice the immersion factor.
Be that as it may, these are just very minor complaints around a very solid core and Fiennes’ outstanding acting coupled with the visual style and dedication to the aesthetics of the period make for an enthralling experience. And allow me to indulge in a little aside for a moment; I found it particularly clever to never show Dickens and Ternan kissing, even during their most intimate moments- including a sex scene, tastefully done, but still omitting a single kiss- acting as a wonderful visual shorthand for the forced separation of the two characters, due to the unshakable conventions of the time.
Though The Invisible Woman is currently enjoying a limited release in the US, I highly recommend trying to catch a showing if one has the opportunity. Extended knowledge of Dickens’ works is by no means necessary, but it does help. Reference is made to Bleak House, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations, with the later’s completion actually serving as a major plot point. If you’ve had limited exposure to his Dickens’ writing in the past, the film is actually a particularly riveting introduction, and shouldn’t be missed regardless.
Rating: 4 out of 5