The Invisible Woman – An untold story about a forgotten woman and the prominent writer who led to her downfall

Think you know all there is to know about the writer Charles Dickens? Well, chances are you haven’t heard this story. The writer was already at the height of his fame, married with 10 children, and still happily writing. Yet his interests began to wander elsewhere, landing on a young aspiring actress called Ellen Ternan, or Nelly for short (expertly played here by Felicity Jones), herself an avid fan of Mr. Dickens and his work. Ralph Fiennes’ latest directorial outing looks at the life of this literal ‘Invisible Woman’ who was kept a secret by Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes – reliably amazing as always) while he was free to live a life of fame.

Fiennes seems to favour these more unknown stories for his work. His previous film, Coriolanus (2011), was an adaptation and a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s least known, yet no less remarkable, play (recently also a highly successful production at the Donmar Warehouse with Tom Hiddleston in the leading role). Now Fiennes has chosen to make a film about a writer who many will simply know for his literary works. Even those that know more about his life though might not know this particular story about this very secretive man. Abi Morgan’s excellent script for The Invisible Woman (2013), which was adapted from a book of the same name by Claire Tomalin, delves into these guarded corners of Dickens’ life involving him and his secret lover. However while it is on the surface a tale about Mr. Dickens and what he kept hidden from the general public, it is at the core a story about the young Nelly, just 18-years-old when she first met Charles when he cast her in one of his plays. Morgan and Fiennes make a point of the focus of this film being on this poor woman, whose life was torn apart by his love for her and her love for him. Morgan uses a non-linear storyline to show Nelly as she is in her present time, still haunted by events of her past as she looks back on them. This shift to the woman in the tale makes a change from the usual storyline that we would see, which could have very easily been all about Dickens, as he is a figure people know and recognise, while she is not. Therefore for this reason The Invisible Woman is a great story and pretty spectacular in its set-up. That it is a relatively unknown story is what makes it so horrifying to see unfold, as well as so compelling to watch.

This ‘Invisible Woman’ of the title is played to heartbreaking effect by Felicity Jones. Her transition throughout the film is expertly done, gradually shifting from innocent and timid young girl full of joy through to hardened, resentful woman in the present, who perpetually wears black and whose only solace seems to be long walks along the windy beach. Ralph Fiennes also makes a suitably lively and fun Dickens, bringing the great man to life and showing equally his passion for her and his work, yet also his many, many flaws. Their pairing together as Nelly and Dickens is perfect too, creating a realistic relationship that is brimming with tension and unsaid thoughts and feelings, even after the couple do begin their affair.


Fiennes again also proves his skill behind the camera, as well as in front of it. Although this is a less bloody and death-ridden tale than Coriolanus was, it is still a story that is no less steeped in drama and emotion. He bravely lets the performances shine through in every scene, subtly letting the mood of each moment creep up on you, rather than melodramatically announce itself. Some sequences truly are superb too, one such moment being part of a train journey that translates brilliantly to the screen and is shocking to see unfold.

Although The Invisible Woman is a brilliantly shot, well-written and directed film, there are a few problems with the story at some points. Ralph Fiennes and Abi Morgan don’t always afford enough time to Charles and Nelly at certain moments in their union. While their initial meetings and growing affections steadily build up at a satisfying pace, it then suddenly jumps ahead in time to show them further on in their affair. This makes you feel like you’ve missed out on vital parts of their relationship and in turn prevents you from truly identifying with Nelly and from connecting with the story, leaving you struggling to catch up with what has happened. Therefore at times the narrative doesn’t flow as well as it should, the film sagging in parts when it should continuously soar.

Fiennes second directorial film is another beauty and once again proves his skill at directing, as well as his boldness at choosing to make a film about a widely unknown subject matter. With a grand script by Abi Morgan its story and performances are what keep you watching, in particular Felicity Jones as Nelly and Fiennes as Dickens. The rest of the cast are also excellent, Joanna Scanlan as Dickens’ wronged wife (another heartbreaking turn to watch), Tom Hollander as the writer Wilkie Collins and Kristin Scott Thomas as Nelly’s mother all giving excellent supporting turns. However a lagging narrative at parts and a sometimes mismatched plot prevent this from being fully immersive throughout and completely emotionally engaging. Yet it is more than worth a watch to see this shocking untold story that has all but been erased from history books and to understand all about this ‘Invisible Woman’ that many wanted us to forget. The Invisible Woman lets us finally see her tragic story and truly allows us to appreciate this great woman – a woman who was forever hidden in the famed writer’s shadow…until now.


~ by square-eyed-geek on March 14, 2014.

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