“You men live your lives while it is we who have to wait,” says Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones) halfway through Ralph Fiennes’ thoughtful study on love, loss and identity.
The Invisible Woman of the title, she is the secret sweetheart of Charles Dickens (Fiennes), whom he meets just as his career is at its peak – much to the apparent consternation of Nelly’s mother, Mrs. Frances Ternan (a delightfully stern Kristin Scott Thomas). Falling for each other over theatre rehearsals of his play No Thoroughfare, the movie follows the couple’s gradual romance in the face of society’s conventions, which leave Nelly forgotten in the shade of the writer’s public life.
That respectable Victorian veneer spreads to Fiennes’ direction, swapping his hectic Coriolanus helming for a calmer, stately approach – at times, a little too stately. A flashback framework, which sees an older Nelly teaching No Thoroughfare at a school, prompting memories of their affair, feels a tad contrived, placing Abi Morgan’s script (based on Claire Tomalin’s book) closer to The Iron Lady than Shame. But if the slow pacing conjures up the air of a BBC costume drama, the cast keeps you engaged. Fiennes is fun as the legendary author, all beard and twinkling eyes, but while he is busy fawning over his own celebrity, the real depth comes – fittingly – from the supporting ensemble.
Tom Hollander provides mischievous humour as Dickens’ collaborator Wilkie Collins, while his unmarried status, despite living with his long-term partner, raises the issue of socially acceptable relationships. The Thick Of It‘s Joanna Scanlan equally impresses as Dickens’ overlooked wife, Catherine, who finds herself eclipsed twice over as he embarks on his new tryst. A scene where she is forced to visit Nelly and give her a present from Charles is heartbreakingly powerful, not least because it is so understated.
But while Scanlan’s subtle turn suggests the movie’s noun should be changed from the singular to the plural, this is Felicity Jones’ show and she comfortably steals the spotlight. One evening sees Nelly and Charles whisper to each other over candles, lest a snoozing Scott Thomas should hear. Is the frowning mother really asleep, or merely pretending just to set her daughter up with a famous author? The screen comes to life in these quiet moments, as the cast help the drama escape the constraints of its stuffy setting.
“You see a freedom which I don’t see,” declares a young Nelly, who literally emerges from Dickens’ shadow thanks to Fiennes’ delicate use of natural light. Years later, Jones’ grieving lover wanders empty beaches in black, managing to be both naive and mature at the same time – a range that confirms her once again as a British star to watch, even as she shrinks gracefully into the detailed period background. This is one woman, you sense, who won’t be invisible for long.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.