Writers Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins were the superstars of their age – adored and admired by their readers and free to move in the highest echelons of Victorian society.
However, both had a guilty secret in their lives, one that would have ruined them had it come to the public’s attention – they were both living in sin.
Collins (an excellent Tom Hollander) was happily cohabiting with his mistress, a situation that seemed to suit both of them. But for Dickens (Ralph Fiennes), things were more difficult as he fell in love with the beautiful and far younger Nelly Ternan (a luminous Felicity Jones) while still married to his loyal wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan) who had borne him 10 children.
Had he divorced Catherine his reputation would have been ruined and so his affair with Nelly had to be kept a secret and even though she shared his life with him, she became, in effect, an ‘invisible’ woman whom Dickens would never acknowledge in public.
That the situation was so scandalous meant the pair even moved to France for a while to escape the attention of the London press, and on their return to England Dickens resumed his role in the limelight, while Nelly led a kind of half-life of anonymity in the shadows.
Directed by Fiennes himself, The Invisible Woman’s period detail and sensibility of Victorian mores and manners is spot on. Also spot on is Felicity Jones’ portrayal of Nelly; a young, idealistic yet naïve woman whose life is put on hold while she lives with this man who is old enough to be her father. Less precise is Fiennes portrayal of Dickens – he never makes it clear why he treats his wife Catherine with such appalling cruelty, making her deliver in person a birthday gift he has bought for Nelly and not even informing her that he is going to leave her: she learns it through an announcement Dickens places in The Times (a scene in which Catherine’s emotional devastation is clear to see).
The script by Abi Morgan bookends the film with scenes of Nelly following Dickens’ death, where she is now happily married to a headmaster in a school in Margate, yet she still holds within her the secret of her years with Dickens. To a certain extent these scenes are more interesting than those of her ‘invisible’ years and it would have been nice to discover how she came to meet and marry her husband after Dickens’ demise.
The film also runs out of steam towards the end, so although it is an admirable effort it does not leave as much impression as it should.