Ralph Fiennes takes the director’s helm a second time and reinforces his versatility portraying infamous writer Charles Dickens, in Abi Morgan’s beautifully scripted tale The Invisible Woman, an account of Dickens secret affair with young Ellen Turnen, a woman whose existence nearly faded from the pages of history.
Period pieces have a misconception as appealing only to a niche audience and even the mention of the genre can draw fake snores and eye rolling from people of all walks of life. However, once the layers of social etiquette and foreignness of environment are stripped back, there’s a realisation to be had about a good story full of the drama of an unchanging human condition, and this is what The Invisible Woman brings in spades. A warmth, humanness and approachability that maybe hasn’t been communicated to a modern audience quite as succinctly in the past.
The subject of this film is unusual in itself, scripted off Claire Tomlin’s well researched account of the relationship between Dickens and Nelly Turnen. The timeline begins in the present, shifting as Ellen aka Nelly Turnen (played by Felicity Jones) recalls her memories with Dickens in a series of flashbacks. Having encountered Dickens at the age of 18 as part of her mother’s acting troupe they steadily gain a fascination for each other, he entranced by her beauty and she captivated by his work and charm. Being a married man and constantly in the public eye, the pair successfully hide their affections.
Nelly being educated with a strong sense of morality struggles with the affair as much as Dickens wife Catherine (played by Joanna Scanlan), portrayed as the intellectually unstimulating bearer of his ten children, does. Dickens goes through a publicised separation, but this does not change the secrecy of the affair, with Nelly staying with Dickens until his death (he being 27 years her senior). She moves on, internalising a lifetime of pain and sacrifice. Disguising her identity she marries school headmaster Geoffrey Wharton Robinson (played by Tom Burke), who is 12 years her junior and has a son. She continues to relive her past through her collections of Dickens work which she stages with the school children, finally revealing her demons to Reverend William Benham (played by John Kavanagh).
Firstly the cinematography is stunning, from the opening scene of a chilly celestial beach in Margate to the flowery fields of provincial France, each landscape is breathtakingly framed (Monet comes to mind). Sets are decked out in such impressive detail that it feels like being drawn into another world, everything from the grandeur of Dickens family home to the quaint cosiness of the Turnen quarters is richly and aptly fitted out. It’s a testament to the supporting cast, who work around props with an ease and fluidity that makes the representation of the period even more convincing. An Academy Award nomination for best costumes is well deserved, all garments are intricately designed, well represented of the times in all their lush sumptuousness, especially those worn by Nelly. The script reflects a similar splendour, expressively poetic, dripping with beautiful lines such as “every human creature is a profound secret to every other”.
Casting could not have been anymore uncannily perfect, Jones has an exquisite victorian quality to her stature that is mesmerising, she pulls off the subtle soft nuances, as well as the bold outspoken nature of Nelly’s character. Scanlan as Catherine Dickens has one of the more understated yet silently powerful roles, enhanced by her striking resemblance to the real Catherine. Together they capture the true cultural aspect of how women were regarded in the 18th century without overselling it, which is an admirable feat. Fiennes lends a youthful exuberance to Dickens as in part, a good natured larrikin with a deeper crueler unawareness, that leads him to treat the women in his life quite horribly at times. His scenes alongside a generously humored Wilke Collins (played by Tom Hollander) lighten up the film, impressing memorable joyful moments. Kristin Scott Thomas as Nelly’s mother whilst endearing, seems to be under-utilised, burgeoning on unrealised potential. Nelly’s older sisters Fanny (played by Amanda Hale) and Maria (played by Perdita Weeks) loom in the background serving their purpose of creating an affectionate sisterly support net.
The element that makes this film feel so companionable is that injection of crass normality which sometimes is cloaked under all the primness and properness. Depicting simple things like Dickens taking a leak or being mobbed by crowds like a rockstar, alongside some pretty intimate and steamy sex scenes, takes the tendency to over romanticise down a notch. This in addition to the unflinching focus on each character’s inner turmoil results in an absorbing relatable experience that should hopefully see The Invisible Woman’s success in the box office amongst a wider audience.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Duration: 111 minutes
The Invisible Woman opens in cinemas nationally this Thursday, 17th April, official trailer below: