The Invisible Woman is slow to build — but worth its wait in gold. A little over halfway through, this terrific drama bears fiercely down on the steep cost of being two of the significant women in the gilded life of Charles Dickens.
In a pivotal scene that reduced me to rubble, the long-suffering Mrs. Dickens (Joanna Scanlan) comes to call on Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), an aspiring actress and the latest in a long line of fragile-looking young women to find favor with the great writer. Fat, forlorn and struggling to maintain her ruined dignity, Catherine Dickens offers Nelly a gift, along with an unsolicited warning about the price she will pay for sleeping with England's literary rock star.
If that warning isn't enough to raise a red flag for the younger woman, the fact that Dickens has dispatched his own wife to deliver a bauble to his mistress-to-be surely must. It does — yet under pressure from her own desire and from the man himself, Nelly presses on regardless.
Another version of this painful encounter might briefly register the collateral damage, then pedal on merrily to the refrain that the heart wants what it wants, and isn't it romantic? And the impeccable period accessorizing here, the green fields and windy beaches, the conventional flashback structure and sepia light, may trick some into thinking The Invisible Woman is just another muslin-and-bonnets romance floating across the Atlantic to collect at the Anglophile box office.
Not so fast. Based on a biography by historian Claire Tomalin, The Invisible Woman is produced by Gabrielle Tana and written by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, Shame), who hasn't proved a writer of nuance thus far but rises beautifully to the complex occasion here.
And though director Ralph Fiennes is hardly out to demonize Dickens — he plays the part, too — he understands that the man's passionate love affair with Nelly is also a tale of two women doomed to get shafted no matter how they choose to act.
Catherine bore Dickens 10 children, but she learned of their separation in the newspapers. Nelly became his lover, or his companion, or both. Because they couldn't marry, she was condemned to live in his shadow, squirreled away in second homes in the country, until his death.
The movie doesn't set out to explain why people do what they do; it's about the mystery of why people do what they do. It's a character study in which all the characters keep disclosing freshly contradictory parts of themselves, right down to Nelly's astute mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), who's torn between protecting her daughter and advancing her future in ways she could never have advanced herself. You may walk away wondering which of these satellites, slowly turning in the great man's orbit, has earned the movie's title. And you will be right.
As for the man himself? Fiennes, who can summon the shiftiest eyes in the business at will, plays Dickens as a chameleon: the passionate dramaturge, the energetic philanthropist and social reformer, a pioneer (with his friend Wilkie Collins, nicely played by Tom Hollander) of sexual mores, a lover of children. He's a kind of fun-loving, overgrown child himself, heedlessly rationalizing the pursuit of his own pleasures at the expense of those he loves. This Dickens feels guilt, but guilt is the small price he pays for continuing to misbehave.
We don't need the historical record to know that Dickens had a lifelong thing for rosy innocents, for whom the slight, girlish Jones might be a prototype. His novels are littered with waifish girl-women, as the actress Miriam Margolyes has shown in her hilarious, devastating and generous project Dickens' Women.
Nelly herself, the movie suggests, was the model for Estella in Great Expectations, whose original ending contained a lot less treacle than the one urged on Dickens by his publishers. Jones' Nelly may look the part of one of his delicate flowers, but along the way she grows a satisfying spine of steel.