Proving as adept behind as in front of the camera, Ralph Fiennes follows his striking adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, his 2011 directing debut, with The Invisible Woman, a shrewdly intelligent and dramatically nuanced account of the secret love affair between Victorian literary giant Charles Dickens and young actress Nelly Ternan.
Fiennes is superb as Dickens. Suitably bewhiskered, he looks surprisingly like the author, but it’s his portrayal of the complex, driven private man behind the boundless enthusiasm and charisma of Dickens’s public image that makes his performance special. As Nelly, Felicity Jones is, if anything, even better, her subtly expressive face conveying the emotional turmoil of being passionately adored but forced by Victorian propriety and her lover’s fame to remain invisible.
Abi Morgan’s script, based on Claire Tomalin’s acclaimed biography of Ternan, is highly alert to the strains the era’s social codes placed on women. Like Nelly, Dickens’s cruelly rejected wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan) and Nelly’s mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), the matriarch of a financially precarious acting family, have no choice but to make compromises to survive.
If there’s a feminist critique at work here then it remains implicit. There’s nothing heavy handed about Fiennes’s touch, and his sure feel for the period and deft direction ensures that his film works, above all, as a highly involving human drama.
Certificate 12A. Runtime 111 mins. Director Ralph Fiennes.