EVEN IF IT WEREN'T Christmastime, when Charles Dickens’s name conjures up the most benevolent and cheerfully sentimental associations, The Invisible Woman, a “biopic” with remarkable fidelity to known facts, would come as a surprise to many, especially in America. The movie tells the story of the semi-public extramarital affair Dickens carried on with Ellen Ternan (Felicity Jones), an actress less than half his age. Dickens met her when she was performing in The Frozen Deep, a play he’d co-written with Wilkie Collins. Ellen, or “Nelly,” was the youngest of three pretty, clever actress-daughters raised by a pretty and clever actress-mother, Frances, wonderfully rendered in the movie by Kristin Scott Thomas; indeed, watching this affectionate, fatherless, good-humored, mildly amoral theatrical family of girl-women on the screen, it’s hard not to be reminded of the back-stage nomads in Gypsy. It’s hard, too, not to be charmed, as Dickens was, by all of them: Frances, for instance, was not only Dickens’s co-conspirator in arranging the sneaking around necessary for her daughter’s affair with the most famous and visible writer in the world, she was also the couple’s companion, on trips to France and elsewhere. Nelly was not much of an actress, according to the few accounts we have, and would probably have drifted into quiet, middle-class Victorian respectability, as her sisters did — both married, one becoming a novelist, the other a reporter and “New Woman” — if it had not been her fate to inspire in Dickens an ardent and obsessive love — which she returned in her characteristically quiet, non-ardent, non-obsessive way. Dickens had been married more than 20 years, to a wife with whom he had had 10 children, when he met the 18-year-old Nelly. Though the marriage was loveless and greatly unhappy, biographers who suggest he would have separated from his wife Catherine even if he had never met Ellen strike me as unconvincing. He was too solicitous of his huge public’s admiration for him — a solicitude which the movie makes plain — and of their particular regard for him as a kind of secular guide, a guide to that which gives lives meaning and value. One very fine moment in The Invisible Woman comes when Ellen, confronted by Catherine Dickens, chooses not to defend herself, but instead to celebrate, in a few quiet, intelligent words, how much more than an entertainer Dickens is: how his novels enrich his readers, and make them greater in mind and heart than they have been before. It is a parlor trick he is still performing.
More than one scholar — and especially Claire Tomalin, the eminent literary biographer (of Thomas Hardy and Katherine Mansfield, among others) from whose 1990 book the screenplay derives — has affirmed that Ellen Ternan, though she did not end up as a writer as both of her sisters did, did indeed have that kind of literary intelligence, that she was capable of making the distinction, not a common one at the time, between Dickens the most delightful of novelists and Dickens the moral visionary (a perception shared, for what it’s worth, by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, to confine ourselves to writers from one nation only). Jones seems to have put, at the center of her performance, Ellen’s mind: her conflicts and uncertainties, both as actress and lover, and above all her troubled understanding of the man who loves her. Known almost exclusively, at least in America, for her more energetic and quirky starring role in Like Crazy, here Jones is understated and inward, in a way and to a degree that I found entirely absorbing, but which might be unsatisfying to moviegoers in search of the more obvious pleasures of scandal. Though the film does show their lovemaking, once and in shadow, nowhere do we see anything resembling a romantic passion for Dickens on Ellen’s side. Instead, she reveals her love in her deep, slow, half-unconscious commitment of her future, her name, her self, her soul to his keeping: admiration, as Dickens says in another context, amounting to awe. One thing that may have kept the erotic temperature of the film low perhaps are the scholarly doubts about how explicitly sexual the affair was. Tomalin found these doubts unreasonable, and they are, though they persist. We known that Ellen told a confidant, after Dickens’s death, that she found their physical lovemaking “disgusting,” but her confidant was her religious advisor, the Reverend William Benham (played in the film by John Kavanaugh). And, though Dickens’s diaries and letters from the period were variously burned (by his sons), bowdlerized (by friends), or lost, there’s pretty good reason to think she was pregnant by Dickens at least once, resulting in a miscarriage while living abroad under an assumed name (“Tringham”). For a long time, after the affair ended with Dickens’s death when she was still only 30, Ellen did what she could, through travel, name changes, and actress-y subterfuge, to keep those around her from knowing about her time with the great man. She went on to marry and have children.
Ralph Fiennes is the director of this elegant, engaging film, stars as Dickens, and co-wrote the script with Abi Morgan, who is best known for The Iron Lady, a movie which won Meryl Streep the Academy Award for her role as Margaret Thatcher. The script is thoughtfully, gracefully paced; again, there is a sense that the filmmakers have eschewed any hint of exploiting the “dirty-secret” embedded in their story in favor of leading us to something approaching an understanding of it, albeit one that is necessarily incomplete. Those who saw Coriolanus a few years back will not be surprised how smart and able and even beautiful a director Ralph Fiennes is; whereas no one will be surprised that he is arresting and emotionally generous in the lead role. It is a credit to the slow and subtle power of Jones that she is not plowed under by the force of Fiennes as Dickens, who was an irresistible performer of his own personality, a tidal wave of energy and charisma, both up close and on the stage, where he read aloud from his works; it’s sometimes thought that he died from an illness brought on by his extravagant public readings of the murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist. He appeared as an actor in numerous “private theatricals” he got up, as elaborately put-together as any professional performance of the period. Charles Macready, the Olivier of his time, said that if Dickens had devoted himself full-time to the stage he would have been his peer. But it is less this outward charisma than the flashes of the inner man that allow us to see the writer, see the man whose psychological penetration, whose grasp of social forces and of the havoc wrought by modernity, outshine even his outlandish wit and gift for caricature.
I’ve said enough to show that this is a quiet film, and a small one, but one that reaches deep into the secret nature of its principals. It is exquisitely fashioned — at a time when how exquisitely you fashion your film seems hardly to matter. The minor parts are expert and entertaining — fittingly enough, since the goodness of minor parts is one of the chief things we mean by “Dickensian.” I’m thinking not only of Kristin Scott Thomas as Ellen’s mother, but also of the superb Tom Hollander as Wilkie Collins, one of Dickens’s closest friends and a promoter of the affair with Ellen (as you might predict if you know Collins’s own lurid sensational novels, such as The Woman in White), and Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1) as Caroline Graves, who lives out of wedlock with Collins: the free-love lifestyle of Collins and Caroline shock Ellen, who is far, in her affair with Dickens, from acting out of any such bohemian, ideological belief. The only false note — a false performance, which must have been false on the page as well — is that of Joanna Scanlan as Dickens’s wife. Dickens’s behavior towards Catherine was cruel — he published a moderately dishonest letter to the public, when the affair became widely known, that attempted to clear his own name but, as he could have known, increased his wife’s humiliation — but the film’s honesty about the novelist’s callousness doesn’t justify the empty way it renders Catherine dimensionless, except for her function in the movie’s storytelling, leaving her a victim and nothing more. That is never the whole truth about anyone. I hasten to add that this seems to me the only reductive piece of filmmaking in The Invisible Woman — a film that matters immensely, despite its smallness, for its honesty and — rarest of virtues in this sort of endeavor — its discretion.