Charles Dickens wrote often about people required by circumstance to skitter through double lives, none with more dastardly, compartmentalized determination than the secretive choirmaster at the center of his final, unfinished work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
As his biographers have made clear, Dickens knew a thing or two about the demands of a two-sided existence. Claire Tomalin’s excellent study of Dickens and his love affair with actress Nelly Ternan, outside the bounds of Dickens’ famously bustling home life (at least until it caused the end of his marriage), has now been adapted into an absorbing film, The Invisible Woman.
Even if you don’t entirely buy this version of events, director Ralph Fiennes has given us a speculation that works as drama. It’s an elegant bit of goods.
At one point, Fiennes, who also plays Dickens, captures a few seconds of Felicity Jones as Nelly on a provincial English stage in a production of Sheridan’s School for Scandal. The irony goes unstressed: This young woman, raised in a family of actresses on what was commonly considered to be “the wicked stage,” was about to enter a school for scandal herself.
Dickens was 45 in 1857 when he met the 18-year-old Ternan, a junior member of his company of players, featured in a staging of The Frozen Deep. Screenwriter Abi Morgan hands Fiennes a wonderful entrance: As Dickens, he ushers the newcomers into his theater, introducing various members of his copious family. (Tom Hollander plays Dickens’ bohemian theatrical partner Wilkie Collins.) A seed is planted. Nelly’s mother, herself an actress, played with world-weary grace by Kristin Scott Thomas, senses something in the air between the most famous man in Britain and her young, not terribly talented daughter.
The Invisible Woman takes it from there, though the way the story’s structured, we begin years in the future, in Margate in the 1880s, well after Dickens’ death and once Ternan has become a proper wife to a school headmaster (played by Tom Burke). She is rehearsing a play co-written by Dickens and Collins. She has difficulty keeping her mind off the past: The play casts her back into her old, hidden life, when she was a mistress and whispered-about “home-wrecker,” bringing the revered author of “Oliver Twist” to the brink of ruinous scandal.
The Invisible Woman casts no moral aspersions in any direction, and in Tomalin’s biography, a picture emerges of an infernally complex relationship in an era when the woman could not win. The Dickens-Ternan relationship, onscreen, is one of discreet mutual seduction, though I wonder if Fiennes realizes the degree to which Dickens comes off as a helpless little muffin, nudged into bed by invisible cosmic forces of love.
The film works mainly because of its actors and because Fiennes gives us a spirited, loving tribute to theatrics. It’s also honestly sympathetic to women who existed as best they could inside the theatrical life. Was Nelly in essence pimped out by her financially concerned mother to Dickens? Possibly. Did Nelly become pregnant by Dickens? Tomalin’s book, and especially the film, assert the probability as fact. Fiennes makes a strong case for this script’s idea of Dickens and Ternan. And as Nelly, Jones cleverly suggests in the bookend scenes the sadder-but-wiser woman Dickens himself never knew.
The Invisible Woman (R) ★★★☆☆