TIFF 2013: ‘The Invisible Woman’ expertly imparts an ideal meeting of compassionate minds but leaves a bittersweet taste

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The Invisible Woman
Written by Abi Morgan
Directed by Ralph Fiennes
UK, 2013

Actor Ralph Fiennes’ second directorial effort (the first being 2011’s Coriolanus) puts the spotlight on Charles Dickens’ long-term romance with a much younger woman. Fiennes explicates how the prolific Victorian writer came to so brazenly act on his heart’s desires and outside the bounds of strict societal standards. Felicity Jones (Like Crazy) is Nelly, who would become Dickens’ mistress until his death. It’s a true story that begins with an attraction between like minds and wanders ever so slowly into physical intimacy that doesn’t match the warm intensity of their mutual opinions. Thinking they can have paradise, they lead each other away from prim and proper culture but not necessarily to happiness. Their relationship complicates our view of Dickens and expounds upon a woman largely brushed under the rug of literary history.

Nelly’s absolute willingness to give up everything to attend to his greatness is deeply unsettling yet rendered understandable by Fiennes. Nelly is portrayed as a woman who genuinely wants to know the man behind the masterful works that have fulfilled her upbringing and appreciates him not only for his accolades but for a sincerely shared compassion for the disadvantaged. Dickens is long married with children to a woman who wants no part of his writing or amorous fans. Young, vivacious, eager to make a difference and please him, Nelly presents herself as too good of a woman to pass up on. Kristin Scott Thomas does a complete turn around from the vulgarity of her role in Only God Forgives and plays a demure mother weary of her daughter ruining her social prospects. Sullying Nelly’s reputation could sentence her to the dregs of society. Jones had a similar role to Nelly in the movie Breathe In, when her character brings upheaval to a student exchange family by inadvertently falling in love with one of her caretakers. Here, she is noticeably and thankfully less objectified and exalted. Her wide-eyed expressions are better utilized reacting to her all-consuming attachment than being the subject of it.

The Invisible Woman (2013)Felicity Jones

Fiennes plays Dickens as essentially a good man but not fully cognizant of Nelly’s sacrifice to be with him. She props him up and is a great source of inspiration, but he does her a disservice by locking their relationship away from the rest of the world. To let Nelly go would have saved her years of quiet desperation and in that respect, Dickens acts selfishly pursuing her. Even though it’s clear that he cares for her and respects her opinions, the viewer can’t help but feel that maybe his drive to be with her is rooted not only in her insights but in how she puts him on a pedestal. Her absolute idolization of his work and personal quests for the poor are rational but the return of her affection seems quasi-rooted in ego. We glimpse Dickens’ at his best–writing or campaigning for social reform–but Nelly is seen abandoning herself to live emotionally and professionally in his shadow. Her life’s reward is isolation and brief interludes with the man behind the legend. The unequal footing they have because of his overwhelming success and inherent male privilege strangle her growth.

The age difference is disconcerting but not what doesn’t gel on-screen. Getting to the point where they feel physically comfortable with one another is so agonizingly awkward that when Dickens and Nelly finally do touch, it comes across as unnatural. The stopping and starting of attempts to kiss makes one cringe instead of cheer. They convey the best that companionship has to offer when talking but fail to flesh out consummating the relationship in a sufficiently passionate and compelling manner. It isn’t that the coupling is repugnant, just stilted to the point that the love scenes are disjointed.

The worthy remnant of this affair is the humanist world view that they respect each other for having. Felled by a physical relationship, their love also feels truncated and tainted by society’s demands. They are the only ones who can validate their affection and they undeniably blunder following through with it when left to themselves. Although well-acted, meticulously costumed and admirably directed- this film is difficult to relish for all the suffering it unceasingly unleashes on an innocent who has to publicly deny her innermost truths to steal moments of authenticity from her love’s genius.

— Lane Scarberry

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