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.
Dickens essentially breaks up with her via news release, and the scene in which oldest son Charley (Michael Marcus) reads the news to his mother from the London Times is devastating.
Jones ably portrays Nelly at all stages of the relationship, including the years after Dickens' death when he still casts a long shadow over her life. While it is hard to sympathize with homewreckers, Dickens' needy personality and callousness make him the real villain of “The Invisible Woman.” Dickens based women in his novels on her, including Estella in “Great Expectations,” but it's questionable whether Dickens ever really loved Nelly as much as he loved being loved.
— George Lang