There’s a very stiff, very Masterpiece Theatre movie that could be made of the tale of Ellen “Nelly” Ternan, an actress who spent a chunk of her life as the secret mistress of Charles Dickens. The author, 25 years her senior, kept her well-moneyed for the rest of her life. That being a kept woman might have done psychic damage is less attractive, but this isn’t a character assassination. The refusal to see Dickens as either hero or villain fuels “The Invisible Woman.” Written by Abi Morgan (“Shame”) from Claire Tomalin’s 1990 book, and directed by Ralph Fiennes, who plays Dickens, it avoids the easy angles that could comfort those who wish to hate or love him.
When we first see her, Dickens is dead and Ternan (Felicity Jones), now married, is a cold and driven woman who mounts stage productions of her ex-lover’s work and defends it as more than frivolous entertainment. Flashbacks reveal a more open, smiling young girl, who’s amazed when her mildly impoverished family — led by mother Kristin Scott Thomas — gets to meet the traveling author. Fiennes’ Dickens is a mirthful, giddy epicure who stays up all night and hides only when pounding out his dense, complex novels. He’s unhappily married and perks up when pretty young Ternan takes an interest in his work.
But it’s not that simple. Their relationship is more business transaction than passionate amour. Even after they’re official an item, they rarely touch, and each caress has the intense hesitancy of forbidden love. Dickens’ wife (Joanna Scanlan), though, isn’t a miserable harridan; she’s simply not right for him. At one point, she pays Ternan a visit. It’s not a confrontation, but an attempt to know eachother and reach an understanding. You get a glimpse into a melancholy woman who knows she won’t have the same freedoms as her husband once he announces their break-up.
The script could still be turned into a wan prestige picture, which is why Fiennes’ direction is most welcome. Fiennes previously helmed a hectic “Coriolanus,” but he slows down here without losing any intensity.Even in the happy-go-lucky early days of Ternan and Dickens’ courtship, the camera is weighed down, as though it too were constricted by the clothes and mores of the era. The film doesn’t head towards a predictable conclusion but becomes more abstract — a union that’s only briefly consummated and always informed by the period. With Jones, we watch a woman — and a performance — become both more defined and increasingly limited, until there’s almost nothing left of her. Ditto the filmmaking.