On Movies: 'Invisible Woman' studies Dickens and his lover

Ralph Fiennes directed and stars as Charles Dickens in "The Invisible Woman."
Ralph Fiennes directed and stars as Charles Dickens in "The Invisible Woman." (DAVID APPLEBY / Sony Pictures Classics)
Posted: January 20, 2014

Whoa, Nelly.

There's a tough scene in The Invisible Woman - the Ralph Fiennes-directed account of Charles Dickens' tumultuous affair with the actress Nelly Ternan - in which the famous Victorian scribe forces his wife to deliver a bracelet she had found, and presumed hers, to its intended recipient: Dickens' lover.

It was a "weird act of cruelty," concedes Fiennes, who stars as Dickens, opposite Felicity Jones' Nelly, in the handsome period piece. Joanna Scanlan is Catherine Dickens, the sorry cuckquean (yes, cuckold has a female equivalent - thank you, OED!), who dutifully presents the jewelry to the woman sleeping with her spouse.

"It was a very difficult scene to do, actually," says Jones, interviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. "I, as Felicity, felt great empathy for Catherine, and feel like Dickens' behavior was despicable. . . . That desire to just completely cut her out of his life once he had fallen in love with Nelly."

But Jones wasn't playing a 21st-century Brit with a big movie career (upcoming: The Amazing Spider-Man 2). She was playing a struggling 19th-century trouper, one of a trio of siblings shepherded around the country by their stage mom ( Kristin Scott Thomas). Nelly was a smart, independent-minded woman who lived in a time when women lacked independence in almost every respect.

"I think there was a certain toughness to Nelly," says Jones. "The Ternan women could, in their own way, be cruel, like Dickens. They came from such hardship that I think there was an extreme level of self-protection."

Jones spoke to Claire Tomalin, whose book, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, provided the meat and bones of Abi Morgan's screenplay. The biographer and the actress discussed the Dickens/Ternan relationship, a relationship hemmed in by Victorian mores. Dickens could keep his family and also keep a mistress, and while the gossipers would titter, his career was never in danger.

Nelly, on the other hand, could not marry Dickens - he wouldn't divorce. She was trapped in an affair that had no good ending, and could take succor only in the knowledge that it was she, and not Catherine, whom Dickens cared for.

That said, Jones found the role compelling.

"I have such admiration for Nelly. I really feel like she was someone who struggled for self-definition through the most difficult circumstances. . . . And I think her relationship with Dickens wasn't straightforward. There was an intense connection, there was love, and I think she deeply respected him. But I think it was a battle of wills, and I feel like it's only later in her life that she reached her full identity as a woman."

The Invisible Woman opened Friday at the Ritz Bourse and Carmike at the Ritz Center/NJ. The film received an Academy Award nomination Thursday - for costume design.

For Fiennes, interviewed separately in Toronto, Dickens was a man of contradictions.

"Like most people, when they are distraught, in love - their sense of objectivity is skewed," he observes. "But clearly, there was a profound frustration with the marriage. It hadn't worked for some time. Even so, it was sad. He barely communicated with Catherine, he didn't like the children seeing her. And Charlie, the eldest, stood up to him and lived with Catherine."

But infidelity and betrayal aren't the only aspects of Dickens explored in The Invisible Woman. The author and Nelly met when he was casting a play. Dickens loved the theater, and at one point entertained it as a career. Fiennes, who knew little of Dickens before embarking on the project, was excited to discover a kindred spirit.

"I read Claire's book and was fascinated by the way she described Dickens the actor, Dickens the writer, Dickens the father, Dickens the man of good deeds and good works," says Fiennes.

"I read one review of his performance in this play, The Frozen Deep. It's a very detailed positive critique of what seemed to be a very naturalistic performance. . . . His character has these emotional scenes, and these monologues, and apparently, Dickens underplayed it to great effect and power, and never came to the footlights in a ham-handed and emotive way. . . .

"He was said to be a brilliant mimic, and his observation of people, when you read him, is extraordinary. I think if one was to meet him, he'd be a very attractive figure and very engaging. But if you crossed him, or offended him - and he would take offense quite quickly - well, that was another story."


srea@phillynews.com

215-854-5629

@Steven_Rea

www.inquirer.com/onmovies

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