Review first published by Little White Lies
“Ellen will give you a wonderful performance.”
With these words, Mrs Ternan (Kristin Scott Thomas) introduces her 18-year-old daughter Ellen ‘Nelly’ Ternan (Felicity Jones) to the much older Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) — prolific novelist, amateur actor, philanthropist, and all-round Victorian celebrity — as he prepares to stage the play ‘The Frozen Deep’ by his friend Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander). Mrs Ternan’s words will come to resonate — for not only is Ellen soon to be cast as persona muta in Dickens’ public life (much as her speaking part in Collins’ drama is about to be cut out), but her mother will, as her utterance here slyly suggests, act as procuress. “She has something,” Dickens comments after seeing Ellen on stage — but it certainly is not acting talent that has caught his eye.
Once again, as in his 2011 directorial debut, Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes paints a portrait of a complicated, hardly likeable male figure, but here it is the women stuck in Dickens’ powerful orbit who are just as much the film’s focus as the man himself. After all, it is from Ellen’s haunted memories and cathartic first-time confession, some years after Dickens’ death, that this story is reconstructed.
The Invisible Woman opens with the older Ellen — reinvented and married — as an isolated gothic figure, strutting the rather different stage of a deserted Margate coast. Working as a drama teacher in a local school, Ellen’s memories are triggered by a production of another play by Collins and the late Dickens — even as the kindly Reverend Benham (John Kavanagh), concerned by Ellen’s aloofness and melancholy, gently coaxes her into revealing her well-buried secrets. These concern her long-term affair with Dickens, rooted in a delicate blend of fangirl-ish enthusiasm, affection, desperation and exploitation.
Yet if Ellen was to become a kept woman, she was also kept out of the public eye — and it is was only with the publication of Claire Tomalin’s 1990 biography ‘The Invisible Woman’, on which Abi Morgan has based her screenplay, that the details of Ellen’s early life, hidden in the shadow of her famous lover,would come to light.
Fiennes’ film reveals not just Ellen’s perspective, but also highlights the lot of Dickens’ wife — and the mother of his 10 children — Catherine (Joanna Scanlon). Mrs Ternan warns Ellen that marriage (“at times the loneliest place”) is hardly preferable to being a mistress, and indeed in one jaw-droppingly factual scene, Catherine arrives at Ellen’s doorstep not to upbraid her rival, but rather to hand over, on Dickens’ orders, a gift of jewellery for the lover that had mistakenly been delivered to the wife.
At the same time, Dickens is himself shown to be a similar prisoner of convention, albeit in a far more comfortable cell — and if The Invisible Woman is a tale of repression and abuse, it also somehow remains a bittersweet love story, sympathetic to all its characters and unfussy — even understated — in staging the horrors and humiliations that Ellen must endure.
Enjoyment Staid and subdued, yet traumatic. 4
In Retrospect Fiennes’ abusive romance makes visible the hidden hypocrisies of the Victorian age. 4