Ralph Fiennes brings the many colors and contradictions of writer Charles Dickens to glorious life in “The Invisible Woman,” a melancholy biography about Dickens’ affair with a much younger woman while at the height of his fame.
Period perfect but with tragic overtones that rob it of romance and warmth, it is one of the most sedate and chaste melodramas ever to earn an R rating. And built as it is upon a sterile performance by Felicity Jones (“Hysteria,” “Brideshead Revisited”), we are left wondering just what it was that the older man saw in her save for youth and beauty. Especially since the reason he gives for their affair is that his dull, matronly wife (Joanna Scanlan) bores him.
In 1883, Nelly (Jones) teaches at a boys’ school in Marsgate. She’s married, apparently well thought of, is directing a play co-written by Dickens and seems uncommonly familiar with the author’s intentions. Of course, her husband (Tom Burke) gushes. She knew the great writer “when she was a child.”
But during the flashbacks she experiences on her haunted walks along the beach, Nelly remembers she was no child at all. She was an 18-year-old actress, least talented among a family headed by her widowed mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). And working with Dickens as he acted, toured and gave readings as the most celebrated writer of his day threw them together.
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Fiennes captures Dickens’ charisma, his sympathy and his eager-to-please workaholism. The poverty he knew is just beneath the surface of this frantic, disciplined writer. The need to keep his dour wife, his large brood of children, his cast of actors, his friends and his collaborator (Tom Hollander) happy is in his manic manner – viewed in a rowdy opening night party that is straight out of “A Christmas Carol.”
“Life is nothing without good company,” he preaches.
“To love and be loved is life itself,” he writes. He believes it. You can tell.
Dickens raises money for the poor and jams as much activity into family gatherings as he can stand. And he makes eyes at young Nelly, but only in the most cautious, courteous ways.
Nelly’s mother has the hollow-eyed look of an impoverished Dickens heroine, a woman who can do the hard math of her daughter’s acting future and the one being the mistress of a famous man promises.
“The rewards of our profession are rarely monetary,” she confesses, and the work is “hard enough, even if you have talent.”
Nelly must reconcile herself to something she finds abhorrent, and Dickens must cope with the risk of great scandal that comes when you’re the most famous man in Britain and you’re seeing a woman who isn’t your wife.
The story stumbles back and forth between the 1883 present, when a disturbed Nelly fights off the memories of her past, and that 1865 past – which is handsomely realized but entirely too tame for this man who saw himself as above “convention.”
And there simply is no heat in the relationship, not in any modern sense. The survival strategy of being “kept” explains that, but Jones’ colorless performance makes one long for something more to grab hold of in Dickens’ fixation upon her. He was 53 to her 18. Even then, that was a huge gap.
But Fiennes holds it all together by force of what he does show us about the man, his kindness tempered with cruelty, the charity he practiced and preached, the morality he could never live up to. It’s the visible great man who makes “The Invisible Woman” worth watching.