It’s that time of year when the cinemas screen a lot of serious films by serious directors looking for awards recognition, so I’ve seen quite a few of them, and may be suffering from fatigue. I think this sophomore effort by renowned English actor Ralph Fiennes is far from being dull, but it trades in a soft, underplayed sensitivity that perhaps isn’t really in vogue right now. It tells the late-19th century story of a famous author, Charles Dickens, and his affair with a younger woman, actor Nelly Ternan, but in a way that really de-emphasises the sex and salaciousness. One might uncharitably say it’s replaced that with some lovely, detailed period costumes and other such details, but there’s still plenty of emotional heft.
What in fact we get is a film very much focused on this once ‘invisible woman’, played by a radiant Felicity Jones, and such is her centrality to the film that maybe it’s Charles Dickens’s real wife Catherine who should be labelled as such. The story takes Nelly’s later marriage to a respectable middle-class educator in Margate, Kent — and her exchanges with a local curate — as a framing story for her youthful dalliance with Dickens. The romance between the two is developed very slowly and without any showiness on either’s part. There’s nary a hint of any bodice-ripping or heavy-breathing lust, but instead a romance founded at first on artistic and intellectual appreciation.
One wonders, indeed, if our director perhaps sees some points of contact with the character he plays, a man as famous in his time as any modern screen celebrity. There are some conversations devoted to his relationship with his public, and how that dominates his life. But this isn’t really a story about Dickens, as about Nelly. It’s her face the camera lingers on (especially when Fiennes isn’t also on screen), often in extreme close-ups.
One recurring visual motif in the film is the faces of Fiennes and Jones in the windows of a train, their shadowy reflection superimposed over the passing English landscape. It suggests a sort of liminality that encapsulates some of the doomed nature of their characters’ love; eventually we find out that this train journey took place at a very delicate point in their relationship. That the romance never really resolves itself positively is largely a reflection of how it was subject to the mores of the times (as well, perhaps, as how very circumstantial most of the surviving evidence for it is). Nelly finds herself adhering to these societal standards, and is repulsed by the freer, unmarried relationship of Dickens’s friend Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander) with his partner Caroline. So the story begins with her difficulty reconciling these pressures, at a point when she is enjoying the kind of marriage which she had been conditioned to covet and which she could never have had with Dickens.
There’s something about the way the story focuses on this inner turmoil within Nelly, and set against her society, that make it a bit difficult to really hold onto. This emotional evanescence is well-handled by the actors, though, and it’s never less than a sumptuously-mounted period piece. It treads delicately through its hidebound Victorian setting, against which all the characters — Dickens, his mistress, his wife, his children, his audience and his friends — come into conflict. Some do manage to prevail, but its the cost of that which the film is interested in above all.
Director Ralph Fiennes; Writer Abi Morgan (based on The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin); Cinematographer Rob Hardy; Starring Felicity Jones, Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Hollander; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 11 February 2014.