'Invisible Woman' Charts Charles Dickens' Hidden Relationship

'Invisible Woman' Charts Charles Dickens' Hidden Relationship

9:02pm Feb 21, 2014

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. The new film, "The Invisible Woman," charts the hidden relationship between Charles Dickens and a young actress for whom left his wife, but who for years never showed up in biographies of Dickens. It's the second film directed by Ralph Fiennes, who also plays Dickens and features Felicity Jones as the actress, Nelly Ternan.

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: The question at the heart of "The Invisible Woman" is whether a person who is kept a secret can be said to exist. That sounds highfalutin, but it's dramatized well - at times, beautifully - by screenwriter Abi Morgan, director Ralph Fiennes, and above all, Felicity Jones, as the title character - the secret.

Jones plays Ellen, also known as Nelly Ternan, the young mistress of Charles Dickens in the final decade of his life. At least, she seems to have been his mistress - it's about a 99 percent certainty. There's little material evidence, though. The book, by Claire Tomalin, on which the film is based, uncovered some of it. But Ternan's role in Dickens's life took more than a century to come out. The movie evokes what it's like for a woman to be no ill-used, but used with no empathy. The relationship on screen is heartfelt, but the literary giant never thinks of the long-term consequences for anyone, but himself.

Dickens is not an outright villain. He's played by Fiennes in an unusually nuanced portrait, and extraordinary man behaving like an ordinary opportunist. The English-speaking world's most celebrated author finds as Dickens is extroverted, demonstrative, he dithers theatrically. More and more he throws himself into readings of his work. He loves being a public figure. In private though, he's lost interest in his wife, played by Joanna Scanlon, who has grown stout after bearing 10 children.

He meets Nelly at a benefit performance of one of his plays. She's an actress with a protective showbiz mother, played with radiant intelligence by Kristin Scott Thomas. He does not behave like a letch; he's a lyrical suitor, and is amazed when she challenges him and makes him think fresh thoughts.


RALPH FIENNES: (As Charles Dickens) This is my favorite time, when the days creeping up on us and we must to put in order the chaos of the night, stand guard once more, ready for light. A wonderful fact to reflect upon that every human creature has a profound secret and mystery to every other.

FELICITY JONES: (As Nelly Ternan) Until that secret is given to another to look after, and then perhaps two human creatures may know each other. Do you not think?

EDELSTEIN: Out of context, be heightened language of "The Invisible Woman" can sound false, but Fiennes has so much brio that he sells it, and what goes on in the face of Felicity Jones is exquisite. She has a perfect 19th-century look. But even as she casts her eyes down in enforced modesty, there's something forward and modern about her features. The performance is startlingly vivid.

Nelly is not an easy conquest. The film is more than half over before the relationship is consummated. Then Dickens does something shocking. His wife unwittingly opens a present meant for Nelly and Dickens sends her to deliver it to the true recipient. The fallout is explosive.


FIENNES: (As Charles Dickens) Nelly. Nelly. It was a mistake.

JONES: (As Nelly Ternan) Did you send Catherine to me?

FIENNES: (As Charles Dickens) Yes.

JONES: (As Nelly Ternan) She is the mother of your children. How could you be so cruel to her?

FIENNES: (As Charles Dickens) And for that I shall always be grateful. But I do not love her. She comprehends nothing. She sees nothing. I thought if she saw you then she would understand that I have nothing with her. I wanted her to see it.

JONES: (As Nelly Ternan) It. What is it, Charles? What is it that we have? When your wife asked me if I, if I was fond of you, I could not honestly reply. I wanted to say no.

EDELSTEIN: "The Invisible Woman" hit's that invisibility theme hard - and it's sometimes literary in the most strident way. The central story is a flashback and there are many long shots of the older Nelly walking along the beach and remembering, remembering. The soundtrack string quartet is lovely, but overbearing. Yet, Fiennes' achieves what he sets out to do - make every frame quiver with feeling.

The story resonates beyond Dickens. In our time, Joyce Maynard made a pile of money auctioning off her private correspondence with JD Salinger, who seduced her when she was 18 and rudely broke up with her. In the 19th century, Nelly Ternan didn't have that option. After Dickens's death she couldn't come out from his shadow, yet she could remain there and feel well, visible. We don't really know if she made peace with her past. But all these years later, her story belongs in the light.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Coming up, we remember poet and playwright, Amiri Baraka, who died yesterday. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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