Because we in America are so fixated on Mark Twain, our “premier storyteller,” we sometimes tend to conflate his personal history with that of England’s “premier storyteller,” Charles Dickens. As writers, public storytellers, and lecturers, they had much in common, especially when it came to humor, satire and impatience with social hypocrisies.
In Twain’s case, however, his impatience seemed to manifest itself as grumpiness, especially in his later writings. He often appeared crotchety, quirky and inordinately self-absorbed. Whereas Dickens followed up on his writings by taking on the moral, and often the financial burdens of the poor, the orphaned and the “fallen” whom he wrote about.
At least, that’s how Dickens is depicted by writer Abi Morgan and director (and star) Ralph Fiennes. In the new film “The Invisible Woman,” based on Claire Tomalin’s book of the same name, Dickens is seen as a warm and charming bon vivant, the life of every party and the center of every adoring mob. He reveled in his notoriety, to the extent that his wife could say, “You’ll never know whom he loves more: his public or you.”
The woman that this remark is addressed to is the young Nelly Ternan, played by a luminous Felicity Jones, with whom the 45-year-old Dickens has fallen in love.
Nelly is 18 at the time, and Dickens is married and the father of 10 children. But his wife “knows nothing,” he says, while Nelly is understanding, intelligent, and able to discuss his writing and his philosophical concerns with him.
They are discreet, but there are rumors. And so, in accepting his love, Nelly agrees to become “invisible.” He leaves his wife, but at that time divorce was unthinkable, especially for someone as prominent as he. So for 13 years, until his death, she remained his secret lover, their relationship invisible to the world around them.
It’s an engaging love story, and beautifully told. Fiennes, who looks astonishingly like the photos of Dickens, is sensitive, gentle, and caring, and protective of Nelly’s reputation. Fiennes, who also directs, ranges far and wide through England’s lush countryside and London’s squalid slums. He is aided by the elaborate costumes designed by Michael O’Connor and the fussy interiors of the 19th century homes designed by Maria Djurkovic.
But the final triumph belongs to Rob Hardy, whose cinematography absolutely glows. In one scene, especially, at the racetrack, the photography is so brilliant and sharp that it almost hurts your eyes to watch it.
Fiennes has also surrounded his character with exceptionally fine actors: the earnest Kristin Scott Thomas as Nelly’s mother; Tom Hollander as Dickens’ friend and collaborator, Wilkie Collins; Joanna Scanlan as Dickens’ pathetic wife Catherine; and Perdita Weeks and Amanda Hale as Nelly’s older sisters.
So, for anyone who is a fan of English period films, sentimental love stories, or Charles Dickens, this film is a must see. It opens in Los Angeles next week.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.