The title of Ralph Fiennes second film as director, The Invisible Woman, taken from Clare Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens mistress Nelly Ternan, could really be made plural to match the film’s scope. The title refers to Nelly, but could be expanded upon to include Dickens’ long suffering wife Catherine, Nelly’s mother who is pigeon-holed into consenting and even encouraging her daughter’s affair, or perhaps the prostitutes Dickens passes on the streets of London, stopping to ask one, “where is your mother?”
The milieu Dickens (played by Ralph Fiennes) and his women inhabit isn’t kind; Nelly (played by Felicity Jones), has no options to be taken care of, struggling in the sexually suspect profession of acting with her sisters and mother. They have talent, but Nelly’s talents lie inappreciably elsewhere: with her melancholic temperament and head in the books, perhaps in another life, or from another family, she could have made it as a writer. Instead, she is trapped with Dickens, who provides her only chance at survival, to be a famous man’s mistress.
His wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan in an incredible performance), has bore him ten children, though Dickens now abhors the sight of her. When he walks in on her getting changed he promptly closes the door in disgust. At a party, the emerald and rose hues of her dress perfectly match the divan on which she sits. Dickens’ doesn’t notice her absence until hours after she has left.
Despite Dickens’ privately open affair with Nelly, Catherine maintains her stoicism despite repeated blows, Dickens making his intentions clear when he commands her to take Nelly his birthday gift for her (wrongfully delivered to Catherine by the jeweler). Catherine warns Nelly she’ll share Dickens with a demanding public, who swamp him with love at every available opportunity, is one whose adoration he will be unwilling to compromise for love.
Told in flashback, the film oscillates between Nelly’s life with Dickens, and her life after his death. Both lives prove repressive, she knows she will never be able to live a public, respectable life with Dickens, resigning herself to the shadows of his existence, and in her new life she must lie about her age and her history with Dickens to maintain a semblance of respectability. Even her curious husband remains unawares of her life before him.
As the little tragedies that define her existence with Dickens unravel, we feel the repressive, torturous weight of her past collapse the façade of her new life. When Nelly tempestuously traverses the picturesque Camber Sands near Margate, it’s as though she is trying to clean herself of the past and to be reborn. Sadly history isn’t so forgiving.
The Invisible Woman is now showing at Roseville, Dendy and Palace Cinemas.