“A wonderful fact to reflect upon that every human creature is a profound secret and mystery to every other.” – Charles Dickens
Beginning a historical melodrama with a quote from a distinctive voice of the era is an often insightful tool of giving the audience a core theme to latch onto. When the quoted historical figure is of central importance to the story, it’s practically a no-brainer, but one that instantly invites a sense of indulgence. So when the above Dickens quote is repeated in dialogue by actor-director Ralph Fiennes’ possession – I oddly hesitate to call it representation – of the writer, it comes as less of a mallet beating the audience over the head with a meaning than a personal post-it note, a reminder to the film of what it thinks it’s about. That’s just 25 minutes into The Invisible Woman, a film that tries desperately to keep something on its mind that it isn’t fully convinced in.
There are certainly vast reams of compelling material in Charles Dickens’ bibliography to give a complete depiction of a unique artistic mind, or simply to use that unique mindset as an outside influence shaping the maturation of a young woman, as the film’s goal seems to be. Focusing on Dickens’ secret affair with Nelly Ternan (unsurprising cast with eager to surprise Felicity Jones), it doesn’t take long for us to notice the adult Nelly and the unexposed young Nelly of the film’s flashbacks are entirely the same person, with few noticeable scars besides her changed name to show that the affair seemingly hasn’t had much affect. Clearly not the film’s intention, but what feels invisible and unextraordinary about Nelly from the start never truly transforms for all the exposure she has to Dickens’ distinctive mind.
Of course this could possibly be Fiennes’ intent, not to make a film consumed with a distinct persona, but one that deglamorizes that historic celebrity, revealing Charles Dickens as just another person. That could well fit given his anti-monumental entrance at the rehearsal for one his plays, coming off as more of a good-time Charley than the unmistakable Charles Dickens. If his intent is to remove any pomp from the figure, why is the film’s sole interest in the character come in the form of a tired celebrity-versus-personal-life debate? “You will never truly know whether he loves you or the audience more,” Dickens’ plump and needlessly neglected wife warns Nelly as Dickens’ attraction to her becomes more obvious in the realms of public gossip than it does to her.
Those unfamiliar with the story, based on the same-titled book by Claire Tomalin, may rest – or sleep, depending on how you can handle the murky tones of Rob Hardy’s low-lit cinematography – hoping for The Invisible Woman not to blossom into a romantic affair. After all, even the facts of Dickens’ secret love life remain behind-closed-doors, open to free adaptation away from Tomalin’s book. It comes close to becoming a more interesting story of how two mutual desires not acted upon can still tear apart their intimate personal lives by way of public scrutiny. In Nelly’s most expressive and defiant moment, she finds herself questioning how these two human creatures came attracted to one another in the first place. “What is it? What is it that we are?” Sometimes a film defining question exists most crucially not to be answered, and Felicity Jones never receives a stronger moment of singular empowerment.
Unfortunately Abi Morgan is not the screenwriter to stray persuasively away from convention, much less an adapted text. Every character is written either to serve as a passive bystander or a womanizing opportunist, the latter of which Charles Dickens and fellow writer Wilkie Collins (all too noticeably played Tom Hollander) are regrettably diminished to. Try as he might to imbue Dickens with a higher sense of honor, Fiennes’ Dickens retains none of the adventurous spirit or inspiring confidence indicative of the writer’s famous work. He wouldn’t be remotely identifiable as Dickens if his name were never dropped once. For all the greatness his fans speak of, we don’t see the spark that should make him a fascinating or tragic figure.
Meanwhile Nelly is almost entirely of a piece with the rest of her family, her two sisters being given little attention or definition, yet both feel just as blank or promising as Nelly. How one should hope that Kristin Scott Thomas would at least be given a meaty, or at least occasionally weighty role. Such hopes go to waste, as Thomas is never given the kind of impassioned, central moment that Vanessa Redgrave received in Fiennes’ last film Coriolanus. Playing Nelly’s mother Catherine, Thomas is left breathing internally as she limply allows her daughter to fall into an affair with a man she has no hopes of properly marrying.
Which is to say that yes, Nelly ultimately succumbs to the trappings of the story, after which the last half-hour unfolds at a gauntly pace. Not that the pacing wasn’t already deathly lethargic, but knowing that the film has no intentional of redeeming course makes its inevitably lifeless finish all the dispiriting. As is typical of such a period-trapped feature, the production design bends constantly to the familiar retired scenery of period drama prior. The costumes, too, are lack much distinct identity between individuals, adopting frills and feathered patterns that do not naturally flow, instead laying stiff on the doomed figures of a tale that’s already played out, if not in the film’s opening moments then in countless other similar features before it.
Bottom Line: The Invisible Woman honors neither the image or spirit of Charles Dickens, even as it tries in vain prove itself anything more than, or exquisitely matching, ordinary.