Felicity Jones' talent not invisible in "The Invisible Woman"
Director Ralph Fiennes’ “The Invisible Woman” is much more than the story of Charles Dickens’ affair with his mistress, Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones). It is an examination of the mores and pecking order of English society in the nineteenth century. It was a time when men ruled and women had little say in the social fabric. Traditions kept people in check. It was a time that cultivated loveless marriages and snuffed out passionate affairs. Under these conditions “The Invisible Woman” makes for an entertaining and compelling film.
Charles Dickens (Mr. Fiennes), the great English author, is touring the country, directing his friend Wilkie Collins’ (Tom Hollander) play. At a rehearsal, in Manchester, he meets the Ternan sisters- aspiring actresses managed by their mother, Frances Ternan (Kristen Scott Thomas). Dickens falls for the younger sister, Nelly, and they begin a clandestine affair. The affair is a dangerous game, especially for Nelly. Women’s careers – the little opportunity they were allowed – and the chance of starting their own families relied on sound reputations. If a woman carried even a hint of scandal she was ostracized from society. It is a dangerous affair conducted under the noses of Victorian conventions.
Ms. Jones is at the heart of “The Invisible Woman.” She has the difficult task of portraying Nelly at three different stages of her character’s life. Nelly is an intelligent girl and Ms. Jones conveys that. The young Nelly’s intelligence hasn’t had the experience that would allow her to read the danger signals of her era. Nelly has a teenage girl’s fascination toward the legendary writer but is also aware that he has a wife and family. At first she struggles and fights her attraction for the good of Dickens’ family. But Ms. Jones takes a scene with Dickens, who she tries to break away from, and shows us the point where Nelly takes a step into womanhood. Dickens convinces her to carry on with the affair and she agrees, at the stage of her life when she is fully aware of the consequences. It is at that stage Ms. Jones transforms Nelly from an innocent girl into a woman who knows her love may cost her dearly if she’s discovered. And the third stage is the woman with the past and experience; who has the knowledge of life and loss. Ms. Jones has crafted one of the most complex and genuine characters in the movies.
Mr. Fiennes is what he is in anything he does: wonderful. He has an advantage playing Dickens. Setting a movie in Victorian England gives the screenwriter, Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady,” “Shame”), a nice opportunity to give her characters poetic verses to recite that don’t bring into question their validity. Combining both Mr. Fiennes’ skill and the poetry of the words and it is an entertaining portrait of the author. As a director Mr. Fiennes has done a nice job of telling the story of this affair with all of the emotion it requires without throwing it in the face of the audience. A particular scene that tells of the choppy waters they are swimming in is when Nelly wants to break off the affair because of what it will do to Dickens’ wife. He stops her as she ascends the stoop of her house. They are both emotional, Dickens more so, when they are interrupted by a patrolling constable. Without hesitation the constable asks Dickens (he doesn’t recognize the great writer since he doesn’t address him by name) if the woman is disturbing him. The scene sets the tone for the dangers that Nelly faces. Mr. Fiennes does that throughout the movie – setting a mood that allows the viewer to understand all the consequences for every character’s actions.
“The Invisible Woman,” based on the book by Claire Tomalin, is a love story. Any good love story is full of perilous traps for its lovers. This is what makes for a wonderful movie. Any romance has its obstacles but “The Invisible Woman” shows how difficult it is for true love to burn brightly and the risks involved in capturing the flame during its time. But no matter how difficult the affair for the lovers, it is a wonderful story to behold.