‘The Invisible Woman’ film a window into Victorian society

Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy

Walking along an empty shoreline, Nelly (Felicity Jones) reflects on her life that has been forever haunted by her clandestine affair with Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes). As a woman married to a school headmaster (Tom Burke), watching a rehearsal of a school play brings back the memories of her relationship with Dickens, which has remained a closely guarded secret for many years.

In “The Invisible Woman,” a film based on the book “The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens” by Claire Tomalin, Nelly comes from a well-known family of actors. She is a beautiful but not especially talented performer. In 1857, after watching her in a performance of “The Frozen Deep,” Charles Dickens, 45 years old and intrigued by her nubility, starts to become romantically involved with her when she is only 18 years old. This fascination, which develops into a passionate affair, introduces a more multifaceted and somewhat sinister side of Dickens, adding new wrinkles to his larger-than-life literary image.

Ralph Fiennes, known for his directorial debut of the Shakespearean tragedy “Coriolanus” and his role as Lord Voldemort in the “Harry Potter” series, delicately directs this film and plays Dickens as a complex figure at the height of his literary fame with hundreds of Londoners gathering for his public readings and fawning over his works. Fiennes, no stranger to playing eclectic characters, is able to convey Dickens’s ability to slip seamlessly in and out of multiple roles as a writer, performer, director, family man and secret lover with Nelly.

Dickens’s alacrity, from his public performances and charismatic public persona, initially charms and seduces Nelly, but this affair quickly reveals his domineering side and takes full control of the parameters of his relationships. Dickens unabashedly sends his own wife, Catherine Dickens (Joanna Scanlan), to send a gift to his mistress personally. A humiliated messenger, Mrs. Dickens delivers an earnest and poignant warning that Nelly must learn to share Charles with the public and understand it may not always be clear whom he truly loves.

Nelly can see in Mrs. Dickens’ eyes a woman who had once been in love with Charles but is crushed by the new reality. She despondently accepts her role as a mere housekeeper and mother of Mr. Dickens’s 10 children. As shown from the spatiality of the shot in which Charles walks into the bedroom and sees his wife naked, he is no longer attracted to Catherine’s rather portly figure. He presents her as a keepsake in public events, lacking any sense of intimacy toward her as he enthusiastically greets guests and old friends. She comes to realize that her relationship with him will be just as fleeting and ultimately dissolve into insignificance as time progresses.

Nelly is completely helpless by this revelation of their complicit relationship, hidden from the public but in plain sight among Dickens’ family members. Felicity Jones plays Nelly elegantly, bringing a sense of youthful naivete while anguishing over her inability to lead a normal life in England due to her repressed feelings and memories with Dickens. Her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) meets with Dickens, telling him she fears that if the public discovers this relationship, it would ruin her daughter’s reputation among the rigidly structured Victorian society. But his vehement personality proves too strong for the family to contain as he leaves, saying dismissively, “Good night, ladies.”

The deliberately slow and methodical pacing of the film, like Dickens’s elongated prose, may exasperate viewers, but it accentuates nuanced performances and a sense of isolation as the uncomfortable silences from the scenes linger on. As a director, Fiennes also faithfully constructs 19th-century England from its intricately designed Victorian architecture and fashion and idyllic pastoral shots of London.

Fueled by graceful performances from an ensemble cast and expertly composed shots, “The Invisible Woman” succeeds at constructing an authentic period drama of a complicated liaison between a literary giant and his young mistress. This is finally her narrative, which, bounded by restrictive social constructs and contradictory expectations, presents a microcosm of the patriarchal Victorian society — a place where women under similar circumstances remain perpetually invisible.