‘Tis the season to be Dickens. With his 1843 story “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens virtually invented the modern idea of Christmas as a celebration not of a God-child’s birth but of man’s humanity to man, of family and feasts, of giving to one’s friends and the poor. History returned the favor by canonizing him as a social reformer, as the poor boy — the Tiny Tim of his own life — who tried to lift Britain from the poverty and cruelty he had endured.
One of the most famous men of his time, Dickens approached the writing of his novels, and all the decent causes he championed, with an almost obscene energy. Writing two grand books (The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist) simultaneously for magazine publication wasn’t work enough for him. He produced and starred in plays, read his works to enthralled crowds (the main source of his income) and fancied himself a mesmerist. That he was: a supremely public personality who, George Orwell wrote, “succeeded in attacking everybody and antagonizing nobody,” and who wore down or wore out most of those drawn into his orbit.
(READ: Lev Grossman on the real Charles Dickens)
Two of these, to judge by The Invisible Woman, were his wife Catherine and his mistress Ellen “Nelly” Ternan. Directed by Ralph Fiennes, who stars as Dickens, the film stands apart from most of the other Oscar-angled bio-pics — Saving Mr. Banks, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena and, yes, 12 Years a Slave — which are designed to appeal to the Motion Picture Academy members’ need for ready-made heroes and adversaries. Written by Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady) from Claire Tomalin’s biographical novel, The Invisible Woman is blessedly open to emotional ambiguity. It sees Dickens as a great man but not always a good one, searching to slip through the strictures of Victorian England and into a loving relationship — where he, like any other mid-19th-century patriarch, expects to be the boss.
After 20 years of marriage, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), as plump and proper as Queen Victoria herself, shares neither Charles’ bed nor his literary and political interests. She stays home with their 10 children while he wows the world; and her remote smile, in one of their brief conversations, may send Charles an implicit signal that he is welcome to look elsewhere for the companionship that excites him.
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Nelly (Felicity Jones), an 18-year-old with aspirations as an actress, brings to Dickens the freshness and intellectual avidity of youth. As he spends time with Nelly and her actress mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), he begins to think of the girl as an ideal blend: potential soul mate and No. 1 fan. Younger than his eldest son and daughter, Nelly could be Dickens’ legion of admirers in one fetching package, just as Charles Foster Kane imagined Susan Alexander to be in Citizen Kane. The prospect of setting up his beloved in a mistress’s cottage, a 20-min. train ride from his London family, invigorates this Charles as much as Dickens’ presence has intoxicated Nelly.
She had initiated the flirtation — late one evening, when the two are alone together for the first time. Charles mentions “A wonderful fact to reflect upon: that every human creature is a profound secret and mystery to every other.” Nelly’s pert riposte: “Until that secret is given to another to look after. And then, perhaps, two human creatures may know each other.” For once, the celebrity is the awe-struck one. He mentions his wife and fumbles out of the scene.
(READ: Corliss’s review of three Dickens movies from 25 years ago)
With Nelly’s planting of this secret seed, Charles takes charge. He sends her a gift, brazenly employing his wife as the messenger. Illuminated by this humiliation, Catherine’s face looks rather lovely; Nelly and the viewer can see the young woman that must once have attracted Charles. In her pain and sagacity, Catherine tells the girl, “He is very fond of you. But you will find that you must share him with his public. They will be the constant and, in truth, you will never absolutely know which one he loves the most — you or them.”
Nelly’s first lesson: Charles is used to being revered, adored and loved in single or banquet-room portions. Her second lesson: a visit to Dickens’ colleague, the novelist Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander), and his live-in love Caroline Graves (Michelle Fairley, who was Catelyn Stark on Game of Thrones). At ease with her outlaw status in a society that deems any mistress a harlot, Caroline advises Nelly, “We have fallen in love with men of standing.” And Nelly, who still values her propriety, exclaims, “I am not in love.”
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Dickens has arranged these encounters to show Nelly both what he needs to escape from and what she may aspire to. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, she has received troubling visions: the ghost of Charles Past, the ghost of Nelly Future. When Charles strides into the room where the two women have been talking, he picks up Caroline’s child with brash cheer, and for a moment we see the man’s charnel charm with any impressionable youth; he is the Pied Piper who steals tender souls. Inviting Nelly on a trip with the Collinses, he implores, “Say you’ll come,” with the smile of the practiced predator. He could be the harbinger of another imposing outlier in 19th-century London drawing rooms: Count Dracula, a seducer who feeds upon the innocent.
Or, in a film whose suspense depends on the enigma of personality, he could simply be a restless man who believes he has found his liberating love. Fiennes first attracted attention playing two such questing romantics: Heathcliff (opposite Juliette Binche’s Cathy) in the 1991 Wuthering Heights and T.E. Lawrence in the 1992 TV film A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia. The following year, though, Fiennes was Nazi Commandant Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, and that role propelled him inside a host of evil or deranged personalities: the psycho-killer “Tooth Fairy” in Red Dragon, the madman in Spider, the crime boss in In Bruges, Hades in Clash of the Titans and of course Harry Potter’s demonic nemesis Voldemort.
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The Invisible Woman readmits Fiennes to the love-story genre. His Dickens is a public figure and part-time actor; in either guise, a natural dissembler. Can he or Nelly trust his instinct for a sacred-sordid communion with her? Is that even possible? Nelly, long after Dickens’ death in 1863, says, “Charles understood that however painful it is, we’re alone. Whoever we’re with, we’re alone.” For years, she has lived in the shadows — his shadow. At the end, she says, “I will not live there any more.”
As actor-director, Fiennes has chosen two dramatically disparate worlds to live in. His Coriolanus, the freest and most vigorous Shakespeare film since Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, reveled in war’s sorties and scars, its power to corrupt the warrior and his nation. The Invisible Woman, two years later, is a thing of furtive glances and eloquent silences. Its audio track has the air of anticipation — what you’d hear from an orchestra after the tuning up and before the conductor taps his baton.
(READ: Corliss on Ralph Fiennes’ film of Coriolanus)
Fiennes the conductor coaxes supple work from his cast, especially the actresses. Scott Thomas (reunited with her English Patient costar) counsels caution to her daughter and to Dickens. Scanlan and Fairley represent the alpha and omega of English womanhood, Under Fiennes’ baton, Jones, who garnered attention in the indie film Like Crazy, seizes center-screen as Dickens’ love object and querulous conscience.
In 2009, Jane Campion’s Bright Star presented a standard if agonized portrait of poet John Keats’s love for Fanny Brawle, The Invisible Woman is not about overcoming society’s conventions but being tossed and tortured by them. Dickens would eventually divorce Catherine, but he could not acknowledge his relationship with Nelly. As she says at the end, “This is a tale of woe, this is a tale of sorrow, a love denied, a love restored to live beyond tomorrow.” A delicate counterpoise of passion and restraint, The Invisible Woman is a major work in a minor key.