This turgid biopic about Charles Dickens’ mistress Nelly Ternan feels as stiff and unyielding as a Victorian corset
Director Ralph Fiennes suffers a sophomore slump with “The Invisible Woman,” a soporific biopic about Charles Dickens’ mistress. On the heels of Fiennes’ vital, crackling adaptation of “Coriolanus,” this latest effort feels like a real disappointment, resembling one of those forgettable BBC dramas where women in hoop skirts sit in drawing rooms and stare at each other.
While it’s probably true that Nelly Ternan (played here by Felicity Jones, “Like Crazy”) could have been treated better by her famous lover, there’s little evidence here that her life was so richly interesting and dynamic that it deserved big-screen treatment.
We first meet the adult, married Nelly as she directs a children’s production of “The Frozen Deep,” a play written by Dickens and his friend and frequent stage collaborator, Wilkie Collins. While Nelly’s husband George (Tom Burke, “Only God Forgives”) knows that Dickens was a Ternan family friend, he thinks of the great author as having known his wife during her childhood.
Twas not so, as we learn through a series of flashbacks, wherein Dickens (Fiennes) hires 18-year-old Nelly, her sisters and her mother Frances (Kristin Scott Thomas) to appear in the Manchester production of “The Frozen Deep.” The Ternans frequently cross paths with Dickens and his family, and soon the middle-aged Charles begins an affair with the barely-post-adolescent Nelly.
Frances appears not entirely thrilled by the arrangement, but as a struggling actress with several unmarried daughters also working in show business, she quickly comes to see the practicality of the arrangement. Sadly, “practicality” is about the most “The Invisible Woman” can muster in portraying the coupling — where’s the passion, the illicit thrill of it all? Everyone acts so damn British about the relationship, including Dickens’ wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan, “In the Loop”), that there’s nary a pulse to be found.
The period detail is exquisite, down to the last antimacassar, but the storytelling is so inert that the furnishings steal the focus. Apart from a few scenes with a vibrant Tom Hollander as Wilkie Collins, there’s a whispered, mutter-y sameness to the piece that drains it of any vitality. Even the legendary Staplehurst railroad crash comes off as a mildly untidy inconvenience.
Dickens scholars might find themselves glued to the scenes where the writer and Nelly discuss his original ending to “Great Expectations” — Nelly is thought to have inspired the character of Estella, along with several others in various Dickens novels — but for many civilians, “The Invisible Woman” will likely be a fairly unrelenting slog.
The biggest take-away here is the unsurprising discovery that Fiennes reads Dickens’ work exquisitely. The real-life author was well known for his talents as an actor and public speaker, and actor-director Fiennes captures that sense of showmanship and charisma.
“The Invisible Woman” is something of a washout, but if it inspires Fiennes to record some audiobooks of a writer he so clearly admires, then we’ll get a spring of hope out of this winter of despair.