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)
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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