The Invisible Woman Movie Review

Featuring: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas, Perdita Weeks, Amanda Hale, Joanna Scanlan
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Writers: Abi Morgan (screenplay), based on Claire Tomalin’s biography
Australian release date: Now showing (Perth residents check venues here)

Reviewer: Karen
Verdict: Slow, gorgeous interpretation that might have played out very differently in reality.

Literary superstar Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) takes a young actress, Ellen Ternan (Felicity Jones), as his mistress.

We know where we are here, in the comfortable territory of the British costume drama, with the added interest of potentially salacious biographical detail about a celebrity. In fact it’s trash mag territory, with our curiosity made respectable by the passage of time and the fact that the celebrity in question was a literary giant – Charles Dickens – rather than a supermodel or reality television ‘star’. Well, I’m not going to complain about that: clearly it is human nature to be interested in other people. But I have my qualms about the biopic genre. It’s dramatised documentary, and for the sake of a satisfying artistic whole, much must be imagined in the realisation and some must be ignored. Fair enough, but what if what’s ignored is completely at odds with the thematic purport of the imagined story?

That’s what might have happened here, in The Invisible Woman. The woman of the title is Ellen (or Nelly) Ternan, a young woman from a theatrical family who became the mistress of Charles Dickens. She’s invisible because the evidence of their relationship was largely destroyed by the Dickens family; this film is based on the recent biography of Nelly by Claire Tomalin. I haven’t read this biography, but I’ve done some quick reading about Ternan and Dickens to satisfy my curiosity after seeing the film, and what I read certainly makes me question the interpretation here.

First things first, however: this is a fine, if slow, film. The narrative, framed as it is in the context of the older Nelly’s grief – secret and suppressed as it must be – about the past relationship, advances in very nicely realised chapters as Nelly reminisces privately, and later confides in a sympathetic acquaintance.

The exposition is beautifully done. The Ternan women, actresses all, mother Frances (Kristin Scott Thomas), sisters Maria and Fanny (Perdita Weeks and Amanda Hale) and Ellen, take parts in Dickens’s friend Wilkie Collins’s play, The Frozen Deep. Dickens was at this stage already a household name, famed for his novels: to be noticed by him was something. Ellen is indeed noticed after she delivers the epilogue of the play with no pizzazz whatsoever. Dickens is smitten. He befriends the family, who are struggling to make a living on the stage and whose options are few. One sister is set up with a governess job; another has talent. Nelly must accept a bitter truth about herself in order to face her own destiny (if that’s what it is) as Dickens’s mistress. The unfortunate lot of women is acknowledged without being unduly emphasised, and the sad reality is that if Nelly and Dickens are to be together, it will be a hole-and-corner affair, where she can never be publicly recognised as his spouse.

The relationship is shown to be a deep, passionate meeting of true minds. Dickens repudiates his wife (and the mother of his ten children) and humiliates her to boot. One of the best scenes in the film shows Catherine Dickens (Joanna Scanlan) visiting Nelly to transfer a gift wrongly delivered to her (and this apparently actually happened); the two actresses are superb in portraying the women – both mortified beyond imagining – behaving towards each other with grace and dignity.

It’s all beautiful to watch too: the costumes and settings are sumptuous, and place us very firmly in the period where divorce was impossible, as were the alternatives. Nelly lives in that impossible space, and then, when it’s all over, it’s as if it never happened.

So, back to the problem with biopics – and if you are concerned about spoilers, stop reading here and come back after seeing the film. The imagined story here is one of a passionate affair between a powerful male celebrity and a younger, vulnerable female fan. Nelly is star struck and for reasons of expediency as well as of personal desire – she certainly is sexually awakened at his hands – she is willing to assume the shadowy status of mistress. Dickens adores her and defends her honour but still wants something in return for his support. There is tenderness and commitment that resonates years later after Dickens’s death, when Nelly, married and with young children, cannot express her grief and guilt over the lost, secret relationship.

Nice. Deep. But do a bit of reading and you will find out that while Dickens was weathering the storm over Nelly, he was also denying rumours of a relationship with his wife’s sister, who became his housekeeper in a separate household. It bothered me that this was not mentioned even in passing. But there is simply not room in a screenplay for every fact, and to tell the story with conviction the creative team must select a path to follow and ignore side-tracks – at least in this kind of narrative.

It might not bother you. Does it? Is it too soon for filmmakers to put words in the mouths of long-dead real people, and tell a story, the facts of which are sparse but reasonably clear, while the motives and details have been obscured on purpose by the very same people? Personally I think I’d prefer to see a documentary, or perhaps a less traditional narrative that acknowledged what it didn’t know, or perhaps offered alternative interpretations. It’s easy to sympathise with young Nelly who was 17 going on 18 when this was all happening, but I could also sympathise with and credit a much less naïve young woman – a working actress after all – who weighed up her options in Victorian England and made a clear choice, and agonised over it much less afterwards.

In the meantime, The Invisible Woman is what we have, and I recommend it. Enjoy the imagined story, the clothing, the hairstyles, the set decoration, the women’s earrings, and Dickens’s garnet shirt stud. Then go to the library and order in Claire Tomalin’s biography of Ellen Ternan and see how your imagined story compares.

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5 thoughts on “The Invisible Woman Movie Review”

  1. Nice review, Karen.

    It won’t surprise you that the only thing that matters to me is whether a film works, and going by your review it does. Obviously, there is a proviso to this sweeping declaration in the case of biopics: there have to be some constraints on the liberties taken and selections from “life” made by filmmakers, but really, how much can we rely on any recorded history as representing The Truth? Every recorded history is selective in its content choices, whether doco or biopic. And in this instance, where the biography author is so far removed chronologically from their subject, I’d submit that they have to fill in a lot of gaps and join a lot of dots in their attempt to create a coherent picture of any detail.

    Re: It’s easy to sympathise with young Nelly who was 17 going on 18 when this was all happening, but I could also sympathise with and credit a much less naïve young woman – a working actress after all – who weighed up her options in Victorian England and made a clear choice, and agonised over it much less afterwards.

    So, you’ve outlined two possible perceptions of Nelly, one presumably close to that of the filmmakers, the other in line with what you’d like to believe. Who knows anything much now about the real Nelly? One thing is clear: in her choices re Dickens, her heart ruled her head. In her time, it was surely naive of her, then, to go the way she did – and more than a bit imprudent. Another, less kind perspective than either you have presented begins to take shape…

    Whatever, in response to your question – does it bother me? [the film deviating from a relatively contemporary (1991) biography] – I say not at all.


  2. Mmm. The ‘less kind’ perspective is in fact a possible interpretation of this film. This was not the way I saw it at first viewing, but on reading an opinion online – that Nelly was repulsed by Dickens but had no option but to accept his proposal (not, of course, of marriage) – and on consideration of other facts from my subsequent reading (such as the fact that Nelly lied about her age, understating it by a dozen years, before her marriage), I felt the romantic interpretation may have been a surface one. And the filmmakers have cannily left things open for people to make up their own minds. Certain scenes show Nelly as impassive, and resigned to her fate. Her confiding in the later acquaintance certainly suggested regret. I guess on the whole I found the film unsatisfying, and I won’t be happy till I’ve read the biography.

    My complaint is not so much with this film but with the biopic genre. I don’t really want it to bother me but I can’t help it!


  3. Re: My complaint is not so much with this film but with the biopic genre.

    Yeah, understood. I reckon the vast majority of the time, it’s better to go doco than biopic – with more contemporary figures, that is (thinking of Senna, for example, which was tremendous; you’ve got to be glad they didn’t try to tell his story as a biopic).

    I guess characters from earlier periods, such as in The Invisible Woman, do lend themselves more to biopic treatment because there isn’t much real-life material to work with.


  4. The passage of time does make a difference, although in our digital age I wonder whether in future there will be less reliable material for biographers to work with: fewer primary sources like letters and diaries, but craploads of dubious internet commentary and journalism….

    I didn’t see the film about Senna – though your review made me want to see it. And now I feel I definitely ought to. It was more a character study about winning, wasn’t it? So not necessarily similar to biopics. I tried to think of a contemporary analogy for the Dickens-Ternan affair. Which was the Rolling Stone who fancied younger women? That’s the kind of fame Dickens “enjoyed” – but there is no contemporary (first world, Western) equivalent for the circumstances of women, or the social milieu and prevailing “morality”. (I hate quotes but feel I have to qualify my choice of words there!)


  5. No, Senna was about the man himself, but of course his drive (sorry!) to win and intense focus on his sport was intrinsic to who he was.

    Mr William Wyman is the former Stone to whom you refer, although young Ronnie Wood likes ’em tender, too. Then again, that accusation might be levelled at many an old goat who for multiple reasons doesn’t actually act on his predilections.


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