I’ve not read Claire Tomalin’s book The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickinson but, from what I can see, one of its most fascinating aspects is the incredible scholarly detective work that was behind it. Nelly Ternan was the mistress of the great author and their relationship was kept a secret, pretty much until Tomalin’s extensive research brought it to everyone’s attention with the publication of the book in 1990.
Rather than the work being some big expose of a Victorian scandal though, it is a study of a woman who had long gone unrecognised as the intellectual, emotional and inspirational support behind one of history’s greatest writers at the end of his career.
Dickens was forty five when he met Nelly Ternan and was already well known as the hugely successful author of, among others, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, Bleak House and Little Dorrit. It was after the start of their affair though that Dicken’s wrote two of arguably his best known works; A Tale of Two Cities and the sublime work of literature that is Great Expectations.
In the book the incredible research Tomalin undertook is highlighted in the acknowledgements section and the rest of it just reads as a historical novel. Clearly any film adaptation is going to struggle to tell an audience what the writer had to do to bring this tale to the world’s attention, it can only tell the resulting story.
That story is initially most tantalising because it concerns one of our country’s favourite sons. There is interest in the juxtaposition of contemporary attitudes against a Victorian society in which being in an unmarried couple was incredibly scandalous but the main draw is clearly Dickens. This isn’t just any other love affair, this is a megastar falling for an ordinary member of the public. It’s like an 1860s Notting Hill.
What Tomalin and screenwriter Abi Morgan do though is show the lives of real people and while Dickens’ fame is important to the story, what we really get is a moving portrait of a couple struggling with a largely forbidden love. Looked at it this way then Nelly Ternan instantly becomes as important as her famous beau and the story is hers at least as much as it is his.
Felicity Jones is superb as Ternan. At no point does she resort to Oscar baiting histrionics, instead displaying a painful repression that is more emotionally engaging. Unsurprisingly Jones’ Cemetery Junction co-star Ralph Fiennes is great as Charlie and the two of them are surrounded by a very strong supporting cast. Fiennes’ English Patient co-star Kristin Scott Thomas is good as Nelly’s mother and her Gosford Park co-star Tom Hollander is typically brilliant at Wilkie Collins. Special mention should also go to Hollander’s The Thick of It co-star Joanna Scanlon as Dickens’ wronged wife. She is the definitive personification of an angry but stoical immolated and isolated woman.
One thing the film could have done was to play out Dickens’ story in the style of one of his novels, like that Agatha Christie episode of Doctor Who that Felicity Jones also appeared in. Thankfully though the director has gone for total realism and produced a captivating and powerful film. That director is star Ralph Fiennes, convincingly building on the fantastic work he did with his adaptation of Coriolanus. This is less audacious than his Shakespeare film but its unshowy nature suits the material.
Any movie that portrays a genius also has an obligation to show what made that person great. Last year’s Hitchcock failed in this respect and while The Invisible Woman doesn’t go the full Amadeus in this respect, it does demonstrate the greatness of the man, doing so partly through the love of the titular woman.
Ultimately then the film makes no effort to highlight author Tomalin’s literary journey alongside that of her subject. It could have used a dual story model similar to A.S Byatt’s Persuasion or Madonna’s W.E but instead it wisely goes for a straight adaptation. While this means it doesn’t give us everything the book does, it is great introduction to a woman long hidden from history.
I do tend to worry about this kind of biographical film. I am generally unsure of how much we really need to know our heroes, believing that they should be judged on their work not on their life choices, but The Invisible Woman presents a rewarding view of one of the world’s best storytellers and the woman he loved.
The ISWYS Test:
1. Is there a female lead?
2. If that character was your sister would you respect her?
3. If your sister did those things would you proudly tell all your friends about it?
Ternan as portrayed in the film was a brave, moral, resolute, selfless and dedicated woman so the film scores an easy 3.
Is this one for the kids?
The Invisible Woman is a 12A. You should know that it is three months ago that I saw the film, catching it at The London Film Festival, but as I remember it there is nothing too graphic in it. There is some sex but it isn’t explicit. There is one thing that is a little upsetting but to give too much detail would be a spoiler. Just know that it is disturbing emotionally rather than visually.