film review: the invisible woman
“She’s got something.”
So eminent author Charles Dickens first discloses his affection for 18 year old, Ellen (Nelly) Ternan in the recently released biopic, The Invisible Woman. Though it sometimes labours to fulfil the task, this film echoes Dickens’ sentiment: the story of the author’s hidden mistress has got something. It speaks on Dickens, love, and history itself.
Ralph Fiennes’ The Invisible Woman is a period drama which brings Ternan’s previously unknown tale into the 21st century limelight. In 1857, Ternan meets a middle-aged Dickens, and the two fall in love. Popular and already married, Dickens struggles to reconcile his desire for Ternan with the allure of status and fame. Though he leaves his wife, he continues to hide his relationship with Ternan, sending her to a house away from the city and burning all correspondence between them. The pair love continue their love affair, theoretically sheltered from the pressures of a society which admonished infidelity, divorce, and relationships between rich and poor. After Dickens’ death, Ternan reinvents herself: she changes her name and marries anew. Still, she suffers uncertainty and loss; of her love and in part, of herself.
This story will no doubt shock most viewers, who know Dickens as the author of classic novels like Hard Times and Oliver Twist, and as a campaigner for social justice. In his personal life, too, Dickens appeared a ‘paragon of family virtue.’ A recent documentary interview with historian Kathryn Hughes even describes his public-image as ‘a cross between Father Christmas, Prince Albert and God.’ It was a persona he went to great lengths to maintain; when accused of sleeping with his sister-in-law, he had her virginity tested and the results publicised. England had great expectations of Dickens, and he intended to meet them.
The long-term effect of Dickens’ secrecy however, was to erase Ellen Ternan from history. It was only in 1990 when Claire Tomalin wrote Ternan’s biography, The Invisible Woman, that her place in literary history was recognised. The subsequent film thereby reminds us of the loss of women’s stories, endemic in historical works, with their lives and roles routinely dismissed as un-noteworthy. Feminist historians argue that history as we know it is often incomplete and inaccurate, a fact that has had repercussions on how we view ourselves and society.
These repercussions become clear when watching The Invisible Woman. As argued by historian Peter Ackroyd, ‘the effect of meeting Ellen marks the biggest watershed in Dickens’ life.’ Ternan influenced Dickens’ works, and undoubtedly, his life’s course. But more importantly, she led a fascinating life worthy of record in and of itself. Nelly is an inspirational character, who declares her unwillingness to surrender her freedom for love.
Fiennes sought to convey the tensions between ‘affairs of the heart and desire.’ Unlike most romances, there is no happily-ever-after in this story: there are only attempts to make sense of intense, ever-changing and sometimes contradictory emotions. In an act that is simultaneously loving and cruel, Dickens forces his wife Catherine to face the demise of their marriage by asking her to present Ternan with a courting gift from him; Catherine is devastated by the loss of her husband, though she had psychologically abandoned him years before. The film highlights how love intersects with the societal structure; Dickens will not marry Ternan due to his status, and Ternan’s gender means she must be the one to endure isolation for them both. Overall, The Invisible Woman adopts the standpoint that humans are uncertain, fallible creatures, and tenderness and desire are both fluid and fettered.
Unfortunately, the film gets caught in such reverie at times it ultimately fails to build momentum – or to climax. Denver Post film critic Lisa Kennedy describes the effect as a ‘slow burning’ which may frustrate some viewers. Its cinematography is repetitive in places, and its ending unbelievably optimistic, considering what has gone before. However, these faults are saved by some powerful performances; kudos to Felicity Jones for her ability to convey grief and grit while wearing a bonnet.Though it may well make Ternan and Dickens ‘turn in their graves’ (as Jones suggests) this film nevertheless reveals someone who was once invisible. And through her story, Fiennes’ weaves a tapestry of Dickens and love richer than we might have imagined.