Friday, January 31, 2014

The Invisible Woman

In the little-known and seldom told tale of Charles Dickens and his much younger lover, director Ralph Fiennes brings a vitality that is often lacking in staid period costume dramas, As an actor, he imbues Dickens with life. It’s easy to imagine him as a hard and severe man what with his novels dealing with orphans, urchins, tough disciplinarians, cruelty, and war. But as played by Fiennes and written by Abi Morgan, he is playful, youthful, and full of vibrancy.

The Invisible Woman refers to Nelly (Felicity Jones), a young actress from a family of performers including her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and two sisters. Nelly is just eighteen when she meets Dickens and he takes a liking to the girl and her family. Dickens garners our sympathy in spite of the hurtful ways he conspires to keep his wife miserable. The film’s title could just as easily refer to her – a woman constantly living in the great novelist’s shadow, an afterthought as far as his adoring public is concerned. Even Charles himself barely gives her a second thought.

Morgan, working from the book by Claire Tomalin, paints Dickens as a man desperate for inspiration and a reason to go on. He thirsts for someone with the same joie de vivre. He sees things in Nelly and their attraction for one another is based much more on respect and admiration than on lust. When they finally do become physically intimate, it’s almost as if it’s what they expect of one another as lovers.

The problem Dickens has is that he seems to have been born into the wrong time. Both he and his friend, the playwright Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander), have more progressive views on marriage than their surrounding society. Artists very often live several decades ahead of their time. Wilkie has a kept woman whom Nelly finds detestable perhaps not because it clashes with her gentle sensibilities, but because she sees how limiting her future will be if she pursues the relationship. This is a world where a man will merely endure gossip if he keeps a woman outside marriage, but in which a woman’s entire reputation can be destroyed just by the appearance of impropriety.

By framing the story within scenes that take place several years after Dickens’ death and when Nelly is now married with a family of her own, Morgan forces us to look at her as a woman who will never be able to share the truth about not only a man she loved, but also the insights she could provide with regard to his greatness as a writer. She must spin a partially fabricated history in which she knew him a little bit when she was a child. To some great extent, there is actually truth in that. But what Nellie longs for, and what she is constantly trying to walk away from during her strenuous beach strolls, is to share with society how she was touched by a man she knew far better than the world that thinks it knew him.

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