Introduction

The Invisible Woman

The Invisible Woman
 

The Invisible Woman is an enthralling and beautifully filmed portrayal of the real-life secret love affair between Charles Dickens (RALPH FIENNES) and a young actress some 30 years his junior, Ellen ("Nelly") Ternan (FELICITY JONES). 'Brilliantly acted' and 'vibrantly alive' (Scott Foundas, Variety), this 'intelligent, exceptionally well-crafted film' (Philip Kemp, Sight & Sound) has been tipped for awards, not only for the actors but also for the script, cinematography and design. 'Period biographical dramas don't come much better,' wrote Todd McCarthy in The Hollywood Reporter, and this makes for 'an exceptional film' (Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times).

The film straddles two periods. We first meet Nelly in 1883, as a married, middle-aged teacher staging a school production of a play written by Dickens and Wilkie Collins. She is clearly ill at ease, as if cloaking some inner turmoil. We then leap back to 1857 when, as an 18-year-old, she meets 45-year-old Dickens for the first time while acting in a play written by Collins (TOM HOLLANDER) that Dickens is directing.

"She has something," observes Dickens, and the frequency with which Dickens ends up in the same part of the country as Nelly seems to be more than coincidence, as Nelly’s mother (KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS) notices.

Aware that news of the affair would damage both Dickens's and her own reputation, the young mistress was obliged to remain the invisible woman throughout their 13-year relationship until Dickens's death.

Director and lead Ralph Fiennes told Terrence Rafferty of the New York Times: “I was moved by what that woman must have gone through. To me, she was the reason to make the film.”

The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy described this film as a 'career high point for Ralph Fiennes as both an actor and director'. He delivers a 'spellbinding turn as the vibrant force-of-nature Dickens' (Mark Adams, Screen International).

His co-star Felicity Jones has also received plaudits, with her performance described as 'revelatory' (Scott Foundas, Variety) and nominated for a British Independent Film Award.

The script is based on Claire Tomalin's 1990 book of the same name, which revealed how Nelly Ternan had been almost entirely written out of history, to the extent that her own children were entirely ignorant of this part of her life until after her death. It was adapted for the screen by Bafta-winning writer Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, Shame).

Re-view

The Invisible Woman

A PUBLIC SECRET

"This is a tale of woe, this is a tale of sorrow;
A love denied, a love restored to live beyond tomorrow"

(WILKIE COLLINS, THE FROZEN DEEP)

As the complex love affair at the centre of The Invisible Woman charts the labyrinth of Victorian moral propriety, the focus is always on the lovers' personal journeys. 'However Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan might have been judged at the time or may be even today by viewers, The Invisible Woman does an exemplary job of making the audience see and understand their relationship from the perspective of each of them' (Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter).

Bookended

Tim Robey of The Daily Telegraph said Abi Morgan's script is better than her work on either Shame or The Iron Lady and 'elegantly straddles two timelines to illuminate a deliberately obscured life, opening the book at both ends on this "other woman" and her divided state of being'. For Screen International’s Mark Adams, too, the strength of the film is Morgan’s astute and layered script, coupled with the strong performances that bring out the depths and contradictions of the characters. 

Felicity Jones has the tricky task of playing both the 18-year-old innocent and the middle-aged wife and mother who transformed her life unrecognisably after Dickens died. Her performance as the young woman entranced by Dickens's abilities and personality, yet morally outraged and later haunted and tormented by the memories of their relationship, is 'beautifully judged' (Mark Adams, Screen International). She lends Nelly 'charged ambiguity... The play of conflicting emotions across her face is subtle yet unfailingly expressive' (Philip Kemp, Sight & Sound).

Household Words

The Invisible Woman presents Dickens as loving and compassionate but also egoistic (craving the adoration of his public) and capable of great cruelty. In his capacities as both director and actor Ralph Fiennes gives the film 'the gusto, energy and turbulence one associates with Dickens himself' (Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter). He 'tellingly conveys the drivenness in everything Dickens does, the insecurity behind the all-encompassing jollity' (Philip Kemp, Sight & Sound).

While praise has  been heaped on the two leads, it is Joanna Scanlan's 'wonderful' performance as Dickens's downtrodden wife Catherine who 'ends up stealing the picture' (Kaleem Aftab, The Independent). She depicts Catherine showing great dignity even when sent by her husband to give Nelly a bracelet delivered to her by mistake and, in a heart-rending scene, her devastation at the breakdown of her marriage.

Shadow play

Visually striking from the start, the film has a lived-in, authentic feel, as cinematographer Rob Hardy (Shadow Dancer) and production designer Maria Djurkovic (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) create 'period spaces that feel inhabited by real human beings rather than museum pieces' (Scott Foundas, Variety).

The film is a fascinating re-creation of the literary and theatrical world of the time. Fiennes's film 'is splendid on both the shonky, hurried artifice of period staging and the evanescent magic that's still capable of bursting through... it's also exactly as any portrait of the performing arts should be − a world of tactful phoniness, smiling lies' (Tim Robey, The Daily Telegraph). In a separate but equally masterful exercise in presentation, Dickens is successful in masking his affair and preventing the rumours aired in newspapers taking hold among the general public.

Fiennes, too, is adept at creating particular impressions.  Subdued voices, such as when Dickens and Nelly are first alone together and her mother is (apparently) asleep nearby, heighten the intimacy of the dialogue, and scenes appear more tantalising and intense for being shot partly obscured by curtains or doors, from behind or in subdued lighting. 'Exchanges between the couple are often shot with both of them in darkened silhouette, reflecting Ellen's place on the shadow-side of the great man's spotlit life' (Philip Kemp, Sight & Sound).

 
Pro-files

The Invisible Woman

RALPH FIENNES

CHARLES DICKENS AND DIRECTOR
RALPH FIENNES

Ralph Fiennes is one of Britain’s leading actors. With his classical training, commanding screen presence and striking good looks, he gave a gripping early performance as Heathcliff, the broodingly romantic hero in the 1992 film adaptation of Wuthering Heights.

His breakthrough performance was as a sadistic concentration camp commandant in Steven Spielberg’s harrowing Schindler’s List (1993), which earned him a Bafta award, and Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations. Fiennes would go on to portray fictional screen villains too: from a hitman boss in In Bruges (2008) to Harry Potter’s nemesis Lord Voldemort.

Fiennes has also acted in more lightweight entertainments such as the 2002 comedy Maid in Manhattan. But even as a romantic lead he has typically been attracted to more complex, challenging roles: opposite Julianne Moore in Neil Jordan's Graham Greene adaptation The End of the Affair (1999) and with Kate Winslet in The Reader (2008), for instance.

And there is a hint of danger or darkness to his more heroic roles, such as the dashing Hungarian count he played in Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient (1996), which garnered him his second Oscar nomination, or the widowed diplomat uncovering corruption in 2005 thriller The Constant Gardener. That edge of moral ambiguity was daringly explored in his directorial debut, a bluntly effective modern-day dress version of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (2011), in which he played the title role.

More recently Fiennes has appeared in the latest James Bond outing, Sam Mendes's Skyfall (2012), and played Magwitch in Mike Newell's screen adaptation of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations (2012).

FELICITY JONES

NELLY TERNAN
FELICITY JONES

Felicity Jones was just 15 when she appeared in the ITV children’s drama The Worst Witch (1998). Since then the Birmingham-born actress has worked in radio (as teen tearaway Emma Grundy, a long-running character in The Archers) and theatre, as well as on television and in film.

The Invisible Woman isn’t the first time she has acted with her co-star and director Ralph Fiennes. In 2010 she appeared alongside him in Ricky Gervais’s 1970s-set suburban comedy, Cemetery Junction.

Jones also played Miranda in the big-budget US film version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest that year. Displaying her range, in the same year she played the older sister of Anne Frank in a TV mini-series adaptation of her diary and one of the dancefloor revellers in British independent film SoulBoy, about the rowdy northern soul scene of the 1970s.

In 2011 she won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for her role as a British student coping with a transatlantic love affair in Drake Doremus’s comedy Like Crazy. She also appeared in Chalet Girl (2011) and last year was re-united with Doremus, playing an exchange student drawn to a married teacher she’s staying with in Breathe In. With a major role in the new Spider-Man movie out in April this year, her US profile is set to rise further.

KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS

MRS TERNAN
KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS

Like her co-star Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas has worked with Ralph Fiennes before. In 1996 she played an upper-class Englishwoman who conducts a fiery but doomed affair with Fiennes’s Hungarian cartographer in Second World War-era North Africa in the epic The English Patient. That acclaimed drama, for which she, like Fiennes, was Oscar-nominated, established Scott Thomas’s reputation as one of Britain’s foremost screen performers.

Scott Thomas moved to Paris at the age of 19 to work as an au pair. After studying acting there, she found early prominence at the age of 25 when she was cast as a French heiress alongside pop star Prince in Under the Cherry Moon in 1986. But she first received widespread acclaim for her performance as an ill-fated aristocrat in the 1988 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust.

Scott Thomas displayed deft comic skills in her supporting role as the devoted friend of Hugh Grant’s character in Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1994 and was rewarded with a Bafta. The success of that film and The English Patient brought her to the attention of Hollywood casting agents and performed alongside Robert Redford (in The Horse Whisperer, 1998) and Harrison Ford (in Random Hearts, 1999).

But the actress has found richer and more varied roles in Europe. While she has continued to work in the UK, both on the West End stage and on screen – her recent performances include a memorable turn as John Lennon’s aunt Mimi in the 2009 biopic Nowhere Boy – she is resident in France. Her French-speaking film roles include Leaving (2009) and a poignant performance as an ex-prisoner struggling with life on the outside in I’ve Loved You So Long (2008), which earned her Bafta and Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress.

TOM HOLLANDER

WILKIE COLLINS
TOM HOLLANDER

Tom Hollander is probably best known to British audiences as the title character of the BBC sitcom Rev (2010-11), which he co-created. The overworked, under-appreciated vicar of an East End church was the perfect fit for Hollander’s affable and hangdog screen persona, and the success of the show is testament to the 46-year-old Hollander’s comic gifts. He was also funny as the rude yet endearing Leon in the BBC's Freezing (2007-8) and the shifty yet sympathetic politician in the Armando Iannucci satire In The Loop (2009).

The actor, though, is equally assured in straight drama. His performance as a young Guy Burgess, who went on to spy for the Soviet Union, in the 2003 BBC Cold War series Cambridge Spies was praised and he lent weighty support to Second World War films Enigma (2001) and Valkyrie (2008).

Other acclaimed film performances include his roles in Robert Altman's Gosford Park (2001) and Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice (2005). He's worked with Wright twice more since then, on The Soloist (2009) and Hanna (2011). Mainstream releases include two of the Pirates of the Caribbean films: Dead Man's Chest (2006) and At World's End (2007).

JOANNA SCANLAN

CATHERINE DICKENS
JOANNA SCANLAN

A familiar face on British television, Scanlan is perhaps most recognisable from the BBC satire The Thick of It (2005-12) as Terri Coverley, the civil servant who manages to remain unflappable despite being on the receiving end of many a blistering rant from Peter Capaldi’s terrifying spin doctor Malcolm Tucker. As well as her established career as an actress – which includes roles in TV series such as Doctors and Nurses (2004) and Heading Out (2013) – Scanlan also co-wrote the NHS sitcom Getting On (2010-13) with co-stars Jo Brand and Vicki Pepperdine.

PERDITA WEEKS

MARIA TERNAN

Weeks is no stranger to period drama, having played Henry VIII’s sister-in-law Mary Boleyn in the TV mini series The Tudors (2007-8) and a well-to-do passenger on the doomed liner in the ITV four-parter Titanic (2012). Perdita is the younger sister of actress Honeysuckle Weeks, with whom she appeared in the 1997 TV drama The Rag Nymph.

AMANDA HALE

FANNY TERNAN

British actress Amanda Hale has a built up an impressive track record in TV and theatre since graduating from Rada in 2005. Her TV credits include a striking performance as Lady Margaret Beaufort, the villainess of BBC drama The White Queen (2013), and the wife of the hero of the BBC’s Victorian melodrama Ripper Street (2012-13).

TOM BURKE

MR GEORGE WHARTON ROBINSON

Tom Burke is fast becoming a familiar presence in British television and cinema, with major roles in 2010 film Third Star (alongside Benedict Cumberbatch), TV drama The Hour (2012) and a small but pivotal role in the violent revenge thriller Only God Forgives (2013), playing next to Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas.

 
Cinemas

The Invisible Woman

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