By William Wolf


Did you know that Charles Dickens had a mistress? Well, now you do, thanks to the engrossing ‘The Invisible Woman,” presented at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Ralph Fiennes does double duty with the film, written by Abi Morgan based on the book by Claire Tomalin. He both plays Dickens and directs.

The drama unfolds from the memory of Nelly Ternan, who is married, a mother and a dedicated school teacher. Felicity Jones is perfectly cast in the role, and we also meet her as a younger woman, an aspiring 17-year-old actress, with whom the celebrated older author Dickens falls in love. There is a problem, of course. Dickens is married.

This is an age-old situation—a married man taking on a mistress—and for the woman it is even more difficult in18th century England and with a famous author trying to avoid the taint of scandal. Thanks to the superb acting and the sensitive direction by Fiennes, we are made to realize the feelings of love between Dickens and Nelly. Dickens does his best to provide for her as she is stashed away in a country house.

We are also made to sympathize with Nelly with respect to her pain at not having been able to come out into the open, but willing to suffer degradation because of her love. Inevitably, there is tension in the hurtful situation, and Dickens’s marriage becomes estranged as a result of his love for Nelly.

Kristin Scott Thomas is excellent as Nelly’s mother, who encourages Nelly in the affair in an effort to gain the advantages of the liaison. Fiennes is first-rate in his acting role, as he conveys the tenderness he feels toward Nelly and the conflict that presents for him.

As a director, Fiennes creates the proper period atmosphere by means of choice of locations and cinematography, with Maria Djurkovic as production designer and Rob Hardy as director of photography. The story builds via its back and forth time pattern toward Nelly’s revelations to an understanding clergyman. The film is free of any attempt to be exploitative and remind one of how a Dickens novel progresses. (There has been speculation that Nelly became a muse and inspiration for women characters in the author’s writing.)

At a Toronto Festival press conference, Fiennes admitted to not having read much of Dickens, quite amazing for someone\who grew up with an education in England. He said, “I was ignorant of Dickens himself, as well as of the love affair.” He said he worked very closely with screenwriter Abi Morgan in developing the film.

The final result is a serious, involving story that sheds light on a relationship that apparently was a major part of the great writer’s life, as well as the life of the woman who adored him and was willing to be sublimated in order to fulfill her love. A Sony Pictures Classics film. Posted October 15. 2013.


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