Thanks to the mass popularity of his novels and his legendary gift for acting and reading from his work, Charles Dickens was one of the most famous men in 19th century England, but his public persona as a warm and humane artist contrasted sharply with his private life. “The Invisible Woman,” starring and directed by Ralph Fiennes, tells the bleak and fascinating story of Ellen “Nelly” Lawless Ternan, the 21-year-old actress who became a kept woman after Dickens fell in love with her and abruptly separated from his wife and family.
Dickens' estate officially denied the relationship until after the death of his last surviving son in 1933, but several biographies, a play and a BBC miniseries subsequently delved into the 13-year affair. “The Invisible Woman,” based on Claire Tomalin's best-selling 1991 biography, puts the relationship into stark relief, exploring how Dickens pursued Ternan (Felicity Jones) and then isolated her for the remainder of his life.
Fiennes plays Dickens as a font of endless charisma, a man who derived his life force from public adoration — he works best in a crowded room, and his eyes become brighter and his grin wider whenever the reticule of women around him gets bigger and prettier.
Dickens is introduced to Nelly by her mother, Frances Ternan (Kristin Scott Thomas, Fiennes' co-star from “The English Patient”), a fellow actress who quickly senses Dickens' intentions, but seems more concerned about her daughter's reputation than her well-being.
“The Invisible Woman” follows a tragic trajectory for Nelly, but Dickens' treatment of his family, especially wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), reveals the true victims. Historically, Catherine did not respond well to her husband's public life and was almost pathologically reserved compared to her husband's famed gregariousness.