photographed by Annie Leibovitz
Photographed by Annie Leibovitz
Julie Kavanagh discovers a rich Victorian world of romantic settings in The Invisible Woman, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens, with Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan, his clandestine love.
At first you see a milky dawn sky and an infinite expanse of empty beach. Camber Sands, vast and marbled with water at low tide, has the monochrome tones of a late Turner seascape, the beige-green tufts of grass on the dunes providing the only strokes of color. The solitary figure of a woman in a dark crinoline enters the frame, walking briskly despite the buffeting wind. She is the wife of the headmaster of a boys’ school in an English seaside town, and she has a secret. As an actress in her late teens, Ellen “Nelly” Ternan was the mistress of Charles Dickens, and she remained his clandestine love until his death thirteen years later. She is not 23, as her husband believes, but fourteen years older—a pretense that allows her to claim to have been a small child when Dickens became a family friend.
Based on Claire Tomalin’s fascinating biography The Invisible Woman, the film is directed by Ralph Fiennes and has a romantic tension all its own. With uncharacteristic effervescence, Fiennes himself plays Dickens; his costar is 30-year-old Felicity Jones, whose luminous, intelligent presence first came to notice in the 2011 indie Like Crazy.
This is the second film, after Coriolanus, that Fiennes has directed and starred in. The complexity of a man whose convivial manner concealed a vein of darkness was irresistible to Fiennes, an actor defined by his ability to tap into the infernal recesses of human nature. With costume designs by Michael O’Connor (who won an Oscar for The Duchess), The Invisible Woman is visually rich. You see Nelly’s transition from struggling actress in the increasing sumptuousness of her gowns, while the dandy in Dickens finds expression in ruffled shirts and Victorian embroidery.
For Felicity Jones, playing Nelly meant having to flesh out a woman who was complicit in her own invisibility. It’s a remarkable performance, both delicately nuanced and wrenchingly exposed. Goaded by Fiennes “to dig really, really deep,” Jones found she was drawing on almost primal extremes of emotion. “She was able to access something miraculous,” says Fiennes, “and moved me to tears many times.”
Photographed by Annie Leibovitz
Nelly Ternan was the youngest of three sisters raised by their widowed mother (played by Kristin Scott Thomas), all of them actresses. Their profession gave them a measure of freedom denied to women of the time, but it also carried a taint of immorality, making them defensively club together. For Nelly, who lacked her family’s acting talent, meeting Dickens was a lifeline. As a fatherless girl she instinctively responded to a man 27 years older, while for Dickens, a great part of Nelly’s appeal, Jones believes, was her resistance. “He had so much power and celebrity, and here was a young woman who wouldn’t easily capitulate to him. Dickens could provide her with security, but I don’t think the attraction was as straightforward as that. There was an intellectual parity, a real meeting of minds.”
Even after brutally leaving his wife and ten children, Dickens kept Nelly in the shadows, setting her up in a house outside London, and leaving her a sizable income after his death. As a 31-year-old spinster she met an Oxford undergraduate, George Wharton Robinson, twelve years her junior, and married him when he completed his studies. Aged nearly 40, Nelly gave birth to a boy, who must have seemed compensation for the stillborn son she and Dickens are believed to have lost.
It is Nelly Wharton Robinson, the model Victorian wife, who opens the film, which then flashes back to her former life with Dickens. Fiennes was uncompromising about chronicling the romance as it would have happened—gradually, intricately, with feelings all the more charged for being guiltily suppressed. The tight, lingering close-ups intensify the drama and demand what he calls “a completely present interior life” from the actors. “It all has to happen in the face. Drift away and it shows.” Shot on celluloid, The Invisible Woman has a haunting, painterly quality that is rare in this digital age. “It’s not what we’re used to in many ways,” says Jones. “The instant gratification, fast cutting . . . you have to shut yourself off from outside. It forces you into a very different world.”