Invisible Woman, The (United Kingdom, 2013)

January 15, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Invisible Woman, The Poster

Author Charles Dickens was enough of a celebrity to excite the interest of the gossip press of his day. Recognizing this, Dickens was careful to keep the nature of his relationship with young actress Ellen Ternan as far from the spotlight as possible. There were rumors, especially around the time Dickens separated with his wife of 22 years, but nothing confirmed. Beginning in the mid-20th century, scholars began looking into the Dickens/Ternan liaison and there was much speculation about a romantic component. Although both participants burnt their correspondence to one another, sufficient third-person information existed to piece together a reasonable outline of their love affair, which Claire Tomalin recounts in her meticulously researched 1990 book, The Invisible Woman. Ralph Fiennes, working from a screenplay by Abi Morgan, has brought this story to the screen in a film that will appeal greatly to Dickens enthusiasts and those who enjoy British costume dramas.

The Invisible Woman is slow, sedate, and suffused with a sense of tragedy and sadness. Although there surely must have been moments of great joy in the years Dickens (Fiennes) and Ternan (Felicity Jones) spent together, not many of those make it into the movie. The main narrative has an undeniable emotional pull to go along with its literate aspirations but an issue regarding the structure of the screenplay introduces problems. Instead of opting for a straightforward chronological account of the love affair, The Invisible Woman elects to ping-pong backward and forward in time. There's a purpose to this - providing closure to Ternan's piece of the story - but the payoff scene, which feels forced and artificial, doesn't justify the distraction created by the nonlinear approach.

A majority of The Invisible Woman transpires between 1857 and the late 1860s. At the beginning of this period, Dickens meets Ternan when she begins working as an actress for a production of The Frozen Deep, a play written by Dickens' good friend, Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander). For a while, Dickens' interactions with Ellen, her two older sisters, and her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) are entirely proper. Eventually, however, the mutual attraction between the author and the 18-year old girl is too powerful for either of them to ignore and they become lovers. Ternan is everything Dickens' wife isn't: intellectually curious, able to discuss his books, and interested in him as a man. The strictures of society, however, keep them from fully committing to one another and a sense of melancholia settles over Ternan.

The film's future segments occur in 1883, some thirteen years after Dickens' death. Ternan is married and has a son but her past love affair haunts her like a spirit she can't dispel. She takes long, vigorous walks on the beach and loses herself in the past and has built a complete library of Dickens' writings. At the age of 44, she struggles to work through her issues and achieve a point where she can move forward without being held back by her attachment to a man who was never able to acknowledge her publically.

Fiennes has developed The Invisible Woman with a specific audience in mind. The movie is meant for those who enjoy delving into the private lives of long-dead public figures. It's an excursion into Victorian England and an examination of what it was like to live as an "other woman" during that age. As Dickens, Fiennes submerges himself into the role. More compelling is Felicity Jones, whose portrayal of Ternan shows tremendous range and depth - the character is forced to face all manner of adversity yet remains resilient. Fiennes is, of course, internationally known. Jones, a mainstay of British TV and movies, manages the surprising feat of overshadowing him.

One of the singular pleasures of films like The Invisible Woman is the window they offer into the lives of deceased authors who are known primarily to modern audiences only through the words they committed to paper. The Invisible Woman humanizes Dickens and provides insight into how events in his life informed his work. It's a safe, non-controversial movie that eschews the breakneck pace of most contemporary productions. Those within its target demographic will find this unhurried approach to be only one of The Invisible Woman's many pleasures, although others may be bored by it.

Invisible Woman, The (United Kingdom, 2013)

Run Time: 1:51
U.S. Release Date: 2014-01-17
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1