The Invisible Woman

UK Release Date 7th February 2014
Director Ralph Fiennes
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones
Runtime 111 Minutes
Certificate 12A
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 8th February 2014

Love affairs must be tricky things. All that sneaking around, balancing the needs of two separate parties. They must have been particularly tricky in Victorian times, given all that social awkwardness and formality. For the sake of all lovers from that era though, we must hope they were not all as portrayed in Ralph Fiennes’ latest picture…

The Invisible Woman tells the apparently sordid take of one Charles Dickens and his long-term mistress Ellen Ternan. A mere 18 years old when she first meets the middle-aged Dickens, Ellen is drawn to the older man through his works and through his acting. Part of an acting family, her path continues to cross with Charles and eventually they begin an affair. Told in the form of memories from Ellen’s point of view as she grapples with her new life as a school master’s wife in sunny Margate, Ellen spends hours pacing the expansive sands of the beach, her husband is blissfully unaware of the hidden life that was buried deep on the death of Dickens.

Fiennes’ movie is a gorgeous presentation to behold. From the vast expanse of Margate beech with Ellen framed perfectly in the foreground to the living, breathing London created perfectly in period you are sucked into the stiff, but none the less free spirited world of Dickens and his friends. Fiennes himself makes for a reasonably engaging Dickens, at once bounding around his garden with his seemingly endless line of children and performing ably before adoring crowds gathered for his readings. Indeed, the entire film draws many parallels to the nature of fame in the modern day. Dickens is hounded at a race meeting once he is spotted and the public is never very far from his life. He in turn appears to enjoy the constant adulation and plays it up for all it is worth.

Then comes the affair, presenting a somewhat less savoury side of the man. Ellen’s adoring mother (a wonderful if sparsely used Kristen Scott Thomas) does her best to keep her daughter’s reputation apart from the inevitable mauling it would receive as the author’s consort but even she has to give in to the inevitable. Dickens’ callousness is demonstrated on a number of occasions -  he chooses to announce his separation from his long suffering wife (stand out performance in the movie from Joanna Scanlan - a picture of savagely damaged pride) by means of an open letter in The Times and insists that his wife deliver a beautiful gift to Ellen when it is accidentally delivered to his wife.

The movie seems to struggle with any joy in the central relationship. It is very efficient at portraying the pent up emotions of the central couple but once they finally give in to their desires, there is a distinct lack of emotional punch. Even the gut-wrenching site of Ellen’s stillborn child is dealt with in a cold, detached manner. We are given plenty of evidence of restrained longing but any actual love is spectacularly distant. Which leads me to conflicting opinions of the movie as a whole. On the one hand it is a beautifully constructed period piece, but on the other it is a passionate love story devoid of any passion. The few occasions when it does attempt to show passion come across as downright odd. A sex scene between Ellen and her husband is particularly strange to the point where I’m not entirely sure how to describe it. We arrive as the couple do, so to speak, and then merely get a shot looking down Ellen’s husband’s body at his feet. Very odd. When Ellen and Charles finally kiss… well, the anticlimax is palpable. Maybe I’m missing the point but it’s very difficult to get fully involved in Ellen’s present day distress when we glimpse so little of the love she evidently felt for Dickens. 

Moments that should be mortifying pass with a kind of shrug of acceptance. When the couple finally return from their retreat in France, they are involved in a completely unspectacular train crash that forces Dickens to confront the fact that now, back in London he can no longer be seen out with his girlfriend. He subsequently puts Ellen up in a not too shabby pad just outside London and effectively abandons her there. The dawning knowledge of this should be mortifying but again, we are left with a passing acceptance of the situation.

It’s harsh to be too down on The Invisible Woman because it is such a beautifully made and well played movie but its insistence on sticking to such a formal style stifles any feelings of love for the characters. Only Tom Hollander’s wonderfully vibrant Wilkie Collins really brings any joy to proceedings, his determinedly unmarried relationship is only briefly dealt with but you can't help but long for more of his presence in the movie. When he is on screen with Fiennes the movie comes to life as if waking from a deep sleep. Felicity Jones’ is more than capable with her portrayal of Ellen, a picture of brooding, repressed emotions but I’m not convinced the script gives us enough to understand her feelings. There is every chance that this movie is just too refined and too subtle for my undereducated tastes but sadly this is something I fear I may have to live with. Beautiful, distant, unspectacular and decidedly earnest, I’ll let you decide if that’s a formula you’re looking for.

Check out the trailer here.

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