There is a poignant poetry in the opening scenes of Ralph Fiennes’ The Invisible Woman: A tiny black female figure strides across an expanse of English beach. Who is she? Where is she going? Meanwhile, in a nearby boys school, an amateurish production of The Frozen Deep, a play by Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, is about to be rehearsed. The figure - she’s a comely young woman with a severe mien - arrives to take charge of the production. She seems distressed, as though the play stirs some old anxiety within her, but she takes the boys in hand. She bucks up; she gives them notes.
She is Nelly (Felicity Jones) and she is the wife of the school’s headmaster, George Wharton Robinson (Tom Burke). What does not come across in the movie is that Nelly is in her mid-40s in 1885, when she oversees this school play. Jones is 30, but she typically plays characters a decade younger. She might be best known in this country for playing the British student deported for overstaying her visa in the 2011 indie romance Like Crazy, but that same year she convincingly played a teenager in Niall MacCormick’s splendid Albatross. We don’t truly understand that she is 12 years older than her husband (in real life, he didn’t either, he thought she was two years his junior). Jones is a fine actor, but she cannot help but shine through the makeup and costume departments’ attempts to dowdy her up.
The real Nelly - Ellen Ternan - must have been something. She was an 18-year-old actress who met a 45-year-old Dickens (Fiennes) in 1857. The author, then in the prime of his career and at the height of his unprecedented celebrity, noticed her in a play and immediately cast her (and her mother and one of her sisters) in a production of The Frozen Deep he directed and starred in. Sometime afterward they commenced an affair that lasted until the author’s death in 1870.
It was a fairly well-kept secret, though Dickens’ wife, Catherine (played here with sensitivity and dignified intelligence by Joanna Scanlan), had no illusions. When a London jeweller makes the mortifying mistake of delivering to her a gold bracelet her husband meant for his mistress, Mrs. Dickens takes it upon herself to deliver the gift to Nelly. In a scene of terrifying sadness, we are made to realize - without any hysterics, anger or even what we might perceive as passive-aggressive shaming - the powerlessness of Victorian women and the inflexibility of the rules.
Fiennes gives a fine, dynamic performance as Charles Dickens, a charismatic artist filled with a mad physical energy that reads a little like desperation. But, as the title suggests, the film belongs to Nelly, as it toggles between post-Dickens reminiscence and present-Dickens bonhomie. Nelly, it turns out, isn’t so good an actress, a fact her mother (cannily portrayed by Kristin Scott Thomas) picks up on. So she encourages her daughter in the security-providing affair, as long as it remained clandestine.
But that proved problematic. Even before the affair was consummated, Dickens and Nelly were together often enough to inspire gossip, and the affair was nearly made public when the train they were traveling on derailed. Dickens, traveling under an assumed name, reluctantly abandons his mistress. It would have been worse for her had he stayed.
While there is a certain languidness of pace that might put off a certain kind of modern moviegoer, Fiennes manages to convey a sense of period that runs deeper than Merchant-Ivory or Downton Abbey nostalgia, while spurring (or allowing) his actors to transcend the easy archetypes to which they might otherwise have defaulted. There are no heroes or villains here and even Dickens - as vain, blow hardy and cruel as he can seem - emerges as a complex and ultimately magnanimous soul, more a man out of time than a scoundrel.
But it is Nelly who we will remember, a deeply fascinating woman played with warm nuance by Jones, even though those who hand out awards were not similarly captivated.
The Invisible Woman 87 Cast: Felicity Jones, Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Hollander, Joanna Scanlan Director: Ralph Fiennes Rating: R, for some sexual content Running time: 111 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 01/31/2014
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