“This is a tale of woe; this is a tale of sorrow. A love denied, a love restored, to live beyond tomorrow.” This melancholic soliloquy is the poetic précis for Ralph Fiennes’ The Invisible Woman (2013). A detailed realisation of Claire Tomalin’s eponymous biography, the film depict the early life of Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), the illegitimate lover of Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes). With his latest offering, Fiennes has shifted his gaze from one literary icon to another. Whilst his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus looked to contextualise the Bard’s prose within a contemporary setting, The Invisible Woman acts to resuscitate the lost words of a woman whose story almost went untold.
Nelly met Dickens at the height of his career. The pair fell in love, yet they knew that if their relationship became public it would have been ruinous for both of them. Part historical revisionism, part portrait of a great artist, The Invisible Woman feels far too in awe of Dickens’ to allow its female character’s the subjectivity they necessitate. Fiennes makes it clear that it’s Nelly’s story we’re here to bare witness to by either tracking her from behind, or lingering pensively on her face as she ponders her next step, yet it’s Dickens’ desires and beliefs that are articulated the clearest. Jumping between 1885, in which Nelly reflects on her earlier romance with the now-deceased Dickens and the time of their affair, the film’s reliance on a flashback structure ultimately distances us from what little action there is.
The Invisible Woman unfolds above an orchestra pit of weeping strings, lit by the nostalgic flicker of candlelight. A sombre elegy for the gender inequality of Victorian Britain, the film’s period details capture a sense of time and place without pandering to too many historical drama clichés. Individual performances are also impressive. Fiennes (whilst still as flamboyant as ever) has clearly learnt from the mistakes of his directorial debut and shows far more restraint when in front of the camera. Jones is equally impressive, delivering an elegantly enigmatic performance, as if carrying Nelly’s sorrow around her neck like a locket of broken dreams. However, whilst both leads impress individually the chemistry between the two is entirely absent. The true invisible woman of the film is, in actuality, Dickens’ long-suffering wife Catherine (a wonderful performance by Joanna Scanlan).
The film’s one redeeming scene is shared between Nelly and Catherine. We witness the wife presenting the new, younger admirer with an expensive gift and some sage advice about living with a man seduced by status. This confrontation could have descended into full blown melodrama, yet the subtlety of touch in this heavily symbolic scene says more about the subjugation of women in Victorian England in five minutes than the rest of the film manages to do in its 111-minute runtime. What could have been a vivid dramatisation of the enduring veil of patriarchal oppression that continues to repress woman to this day sadly lacks the female subjectivity required to articulate its message. Dickens will be the allure for many viewers, and they won’t be disappointed, but The Invisible Woman’s inability to effectively convey Nelly’s story feel like a disservice to Tomalin’s text.
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