Ralph Fiennes began his directorial career with aplomb courtesy of an impressive Eastern Bloc adaptation of Shakespeare’s compelling yet dense Coriolanus (2011). After playing the role of the eponymous Roman general in the aforementioned drama, Fiennes finds himself portraying a character no less iconic in his second feature behind the camera, appearing as Victorian wordsmith Charles Dickens in The Invisible Woman (2013). It’s Dickens’ heart rather than his highly regarded prose that is the subject of this particular tale – more specifically, the novelist’s secret extramarital relationship with a beautiful young actress.
Ellen ‘Nelly’ Ternan (Like Crazy star Felicity Jones) first beguiles Dickens when she’s taken by her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas, in what could be one of her final screen roles) to begin rehearsals to appear in a play of his. Despite a wife and children, Dickens finds himself drawn to her – as she is to him – but society will not allow them to act upon their feelings. Told through a series of flashbacks from an older Nelly, married but forever grieving, it becomes clear that either they were never able to consummate their love, or at least never have it acknowledged in public life. Fiennes once again provides a stellar performance, effortlessly inhabiting the conflicted and egotistic writer, but it is the women of the piece who truly shine.
Jones is a captivating and frustrated presence as the film’s protagonist, amply complemented by several smaller, yet equally fantastic supporting turns. Joanna Scanlan plays Dickens’ much-maligned wife, Catherine, whilst Michelle Fairley appears as Caroline Graves, the partner (not wife, tellingly) of Wilkie Collins (In the Loop’s Tom Hollander). Through these three women, Abi Morgan’s screenplay – based on Claire Tomalin’s book – presents a fascinating depiction of both the plight of women in Victorian England and the stoicism with which they bore the injustices handed down by banefully oblivious men. The Invisible Woman’s best scene comes when Dickens’ cruelty is laid bare as he sends his wife to deliver Nelly’s birthday present.
The issue with Fiennes’ film, however, is that the direction seems somewhat at odds with a script bursting with import and insight about the role of women in the 19th century. Far more emphasis is placed on intimate close-ups and intense scenes of longing in shallow focus, giving the impression of a fairly run-of-mill period romance. This proves a further problem given that the plot does not ultimately satisfy audience expectation in that regard, meaning it falls between two stools. Luckily, fine performances from Fiennes, Jones et al, some beautiful visuals and several excellent scenes keep The Invisible Woman interesting and watchable; though a little mishandling has perhaps turned a promising script into missed a opportunity.