For decades, the behind-the-scenes lives of the famous have been fodder for celluloid “exposes.” In recent years in particular, filmmakers have been attracted to tales of illicit romances during times in which strict codes of social conduct were supposed to be adhered to. The latest example is THE INVISIBLE WOMAN, which is directed by Ralph Fiennes. THE INVISIBLE WOMAN charts the evolving relationship between an older Charles Dickens, who also is played by Fiennes, and a young woman named Nelly Ternan.
The time is 1883 and Ternan, the title character, is a drama teacher who is directing a high school production of a play coauthored by Dickens. By now, Nelly is married and Dickens is deceased. But once upon a time, when she eighteen and unmarried and he was the darling of London society, the two were romantically involved. In a flashback to 1857, Dickens and Nelly meet during the production of another play, this one penned by Wilkie Collins that stars and is directed by Dickens. There is an immediate attraction between the two, but there also is a problem: Dickens is married. Furthermore, as presented here, his wife is a singularly unattractive woman, both physically and personality-wise, so it is understandable that he would seek the company of Nelly.
While THE INVISIBLE WOMAN charts the budding connection between the two, it also spotlights the issues that come with it as well as how those issues mirror the mores of Victorian England. For sure, Dickens is generous to Nelly and her family, and her mother even ever-so-subtly sanctions the relationship. But Nelly finds it difficult to deal with Dickens’ feelings because he is, after all, a married man. Nelly is, at her core, a very proper Victorian Englishwoman. She is the definition of 19th-century virtue. In no way is she a wanton mistress-in-waiting. But her attraction to Dickens is real. So will she be able to overcome her reservations and accept Dickens’ love?
Another issue here involves the differences between men and woman. At this time, men such as Dickens, even if they were married, were free to do as they pleased. But not so their female equivalents-- and certainly not a woman such as Nelly, who is anything but highborn.
THE INVISIBLE WOMAN is an otherwise intelligent and well-intentioned film that, unfortunately, somehow misses the mark. In its favor, it offers a revealing view of Charles Dickens as a personality, and it serves as a reminder that celebrity culture was not concocted in the 21st century. The film also puts forth the point-of-view that, to quote one of the characters, “Whoever we are with, we are alone.” It stresses the importance of living in the present and appreciating those who currently are in your life, rather than obsessing over the memories of those from your past. In other words, you must put your memories and feelings in their proper place.
But while I was increasingly drawn in by the characters and their dilemmas, THE INVISIBLE WOMAN ultimately was far too uninvolving and even a wee-bit stodgy. One of the keys to the film is the performance of Felicity Jones, who plays Nelly. For me, it lacked the necessary spark needed to keep me interested in her character’s plight.
THE INVISIBLE WOMAN is not a bad film, by any means. But in the end, dramatically-speaking, it really is neither exceptional nor memorable.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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