by Kathie Smith
This is a tale of woe
This is a tale of sorrow
A love denied, a love restored
To live beyond tomorrow.
These are the closing lines from the 1856 play The Frozen Deep written by Wilkie Collins and performed, altered and embellished “under the management” of Charles Dickens. The play is an allegorical treatment of the doomed Franklin Expedition to the Arctic, but more importantly it was a rebuttal to a report that these God-fearing English gentlemen had resorted to cannibalism in a final desperate act to survive (a fact largely confirmed in more recent excavations.) Dickens, a public figure who acted as social moralist, led a campaign to discredit the accusing Inuit people that he referred to as savages, and to defend the honor of the dignified genteel Victorian man. Symbolically, the play epitomizes, albeit covertly, Dickens’ somewhat hypocritical disregard for the axiom judge not lest ye be judged—a concept that weighs heavily in Ralph Fiennes’ The Invisible Woman.
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Producers: Maya Amsellem, Sharon Harel, Eve Schoukroun, Christian Baute, Carolyn Marks Blackwood, Stewart Mackinnon, Gabrielle Tana
Writers: Claire Tomalin (book), Abi Morgan
Cinematographer: Rob Hardy
Editor: Nicolas Gaster
Music: Ilan Eshkeri
Cast: Felicity Jones, Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Joanna Scanlan, Perdita Weeks, Amanda Hale, Tom Hollander, John Kavanaugh, Tom Burke, Gabriel Vick, Mark Dexter, Christos Lawton
Premiere: August 31, 2013 – Telluride Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: December 25, 2013
US Distributor: Sony Pictures Classic
The Frozen Deep and its solemn coda are both a beginning and an end to Fiennes’ deft portrait of Dickens and his illicit affair with Nelly Ternan. In 1857 Nelly, then a young actress, was cast in The Frozen Deep, sparking an attraction that would fatefully lead the world’s most renowned Victorian novelist to personally defy the values that he so proudly espoused. The casting of Nellie and her consequential meeting with Dickens comes early in the film—Dickens (Fiennes) playing the exuberant family man and Nelly (Felicity Jones) the confident well-read fan—and is a grand orchestration of meaningful glances and buoyant artistic energy. However, Nelly’s role in The Frozen Deep seems to silently hang in question until the final moments of the movie, in which it returns to the beginning and shows Nelly closing the play by reciting the lines above, like a melancholic exhale. Nelly’s role in The Frozen Deep may represent the genesis of a great affaire de cœur, but her lines, used as the film’s epilogue, are a heavy-hearted epitaph for a woman that history willfully forgot.
Told in flashback, The Invisible Woman is a reflection of a much older Nelly—now remarried and working as a teacher, but harboring a secret that is both her treasure and her burden. But the movie is also a subtle assessment of a larger-than-life author who, not so surprisingly, has his flaws. Adapted from the research gathered by Claire Tomalin in a 1990 book of the same name, The Invisible Woman cares less about making Dickens a villain than developing an empathy for the life of Nelly Ternan that was all but erased in order to save her own reputation. Built within that framework, screenwriter Abi Morgan humanizes the characters out of their period-piece clichés and gives great pause to the limited choices of women—not only Nelly, but also her single mother Frances (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Dickens’ discarded wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan).
Ellen ‘Nelly’ Ternan was born into a well-known acting family, and when her father died when she was seven, it was her mother’s responsibility to promote and protect the careers of Nelly and her two older sisters as they lived the traveling thespian lifestyle. As it’s represented in the movie, her mother realizes Nelly’s limited acting skills but also the social minefield of becoming a man’s mistress at the innocent and youthful age of 18. Her lesser-of-two-evils acquiescence to Dickens’ request is painfully contrasted with Catherine’s helpless concessions to her husband’s freewill—receiving a very public notice of separation via the newspaper and submitting, at her husbands request, to a humbling confrontation with Nelly. The claim that Victorian England was a man’s world is no surprise and certainly no revelation, but the portrayal of the well-meaning but oblivious men in The Invisible Woman strikes a chord. Dickens marvels at Nelly’s freedom with the same incognizance as he and his friend Wilkie Collins (who also kept a mistress) enthusiastically declare that they are pioneers, breaking social conventions. The effects of their clandestine “pioneering” on the women they claim to love is something they seem to consider, quite erroneously, a two way street.
Surprisingly, The Invisible Woman keeps the finger pointing at a minimum and fully respects the culpability of 19th century mores on Nelly’s veiled existence, focusing much of its attention on the compassionate, and somewhat platonically depicted, relationship that she and Dickens had for more than 10 years. Fiennes, directing only his second feature, skillfully navigates the scandalous material by toning down the melodrama and polishing the production to a point where it outshines the story. The opening long-range shot of a muted winter beach with a woman in a black-hooped dress striding from one side of the frame to another resonates with the kind of beauty and grandeur that sets a tone, and one that is maintained throughout. One of the most breathtaking scenes takes place at the horse races, the camera focused on the audience and the soft colors of Nelly’s dress set against a grey sky. The silence isolates this shot in a bubble until the sound, as if cued by the faces suddenly watching the action in unison, grows to a thunderous crescendo of hoofs as the horses cross between the camera and the grandstands. The technical achievement in lighting, both in the subdued sunlight and shadows of candlelit rooms, does wonders to convey a different time, place, and world.
For all the visual extravagance, the story and performances unfortunately never feel any more than mechanical, perfectly paced and classically refined respectively, with the only notable exception being Scanlan’s selfless portrayal of Catherine. Jones and Fiennes carry the weight of their roles but little more, relying on the trimmings of costume and makeup for elevation. Likewise, the contradictions that riddle Dickens’ persona are mostly glazed over in an attempt to overstate the precarious position of Nelly’s good name without fully exploring Dickens’ more selfish needs and desires. His cruelty towards his wife is only a minor note compared to his seemingly committed adoration of Nelly. Dickens’ unprecedented fame made for a robust public life but a very conflicted personal life, a fact that is tossed off with a shrug in favor of an affecting if not stock variance on transcendent love. A richer commentary might be achieved by contemplating the plays referenced in the movie, including The Frozen Deep with its veiled pious criticisms and No Thoroughfare, Dickens’ last stage production, dealing with both guilt and ill-fated love. But this kind of examination is not afforded within the frames of Fiennes’ The Invisible Woman and is no more than far-reaching conjecture and cooked-up context—wishful thinking for a well-made biography that fails to reach further than a habitual fact-driven drama.