The outrage one expects to feel during “The Invisible Woman,” in which 45-year-old author, husband and father of many Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) falls for an 18-year-old (Felicity Jones), never arrives.
Fiennes, who also directed, crafts a vividly human and likable character impossible to dismiss as an old, whiskered perv. The Dickens of “Invisible Woman” is vain and kind, convivial and regretful, altogether fascinating. He’s the life of every party and the life of this movie.
Fiennes’ blue eyes, so icily cruel in “Schindler’s List,” fill with good cheer and good intentions here. Not just when Charles looks at young actress Ellen “Nelly” Ternan (Jones), but when he looks at his wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), whose seeming indifference partly explains why he is drawn to the girl.
Sophomore director Fiennes (he also made 2011’s “Coriolanus”) also offers more visual vibrancy than one would expect from a story drawn from Dickens’ life. Keeping the chimney smoke and street urchins to a minimum, Fiennes favors wide shots of sea and sand and of a cloudy sky dotted by Victorian top hats and bonnets during a day at the races.
The trouble with “Woman” – or rather, what little trouble there is – lies in how it all keeps coming back to Fiennes. A man.
Adapted from Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady”) from Claire Tomalin’s 1990 Ternan biography, “Woman” strives for a feminist focus by emphasizing Victorian women’s lack of agency.
That message comes through, but the strongest message is that scenes come alive when Fiennes is in them. Though Jones plays the film’s protagonist – Ternan was involved with Dickens for 13 years, up to his death in 1870 – Fiennes emerges as its star.
Jones isn’t bad. She ably shows how Nelly’s affair with Charles has put her in an untenable position. But that point gets stretched too far in the writing. Nelly sometimes seems less a person than a symbol of the constraints placed on women of her time.
Nelly loves Charles but does not want to be any man’s mistress. But because he will not acknowledge their relationship and thus risk both their reputations, she must manage her expectations.
After a brief period of bantering and love-struck looks, Nelly often seems conflicted and disappointed. Jones’ expressions follow suit. Her pained looks might not be so noteworthy were there not such a charisma imbalance between her and Fiennes.
Dickens, upon meeting Nelly and putting her on stage in his new theater, remarks that Nelly “has something.” But it’s hard to see that something when Jones so often looks vaguely unhappy or unhappily vague.
Director Fiennes brings a let’s-put-on-a-show vitality to scenes surrounding that production, in which he has cast Nelly, her widowed mother and fellow actress (Kristin Scott Thomas) and himself.
Charles clearly loves the spotlight and crowds more than the lonely writer’s life. He keeps the theatricality going at a post-show party, with songs, parlor tricks and a bonhomie made more appealing to guests by his celebrity status.
As others laugh and revel, Catherine never cracks a smile, her husband’s charms now lost on her.
Scanlan alternates quiet inscrutability and mild disapproval as Catherine rebuffs her husband’s (pre-affair with the teenager) attempts at intimacy. Once Charles’ feelings for Nelly become known, Scanlan breaks Catherine’s careful surface, revealing the wife’s longtime disappointment with the man who once turned his special light on her.
But as an older mid-19th-century Englishwoman with several children, she has few options beyond staying married.
When Charles begins showing up at Nelly’s performances at other theaters, her mother suspects his interest goes beyond the lousy farces in which Nelly is appearing.
Scott Thomas brings pragmatism and sadness to the mother, who, recognizing that Nelly, the least talented member of their financially struggling family acting troupe, could do worse than being Charles’ mistress. She quietly encourages the affair, as long as her daughter does not end up in the gossip columns.
Though the film positions Nelly as its key example of gender inequity, Scanlan, Scott Thomas and their more seasoned characters’ compromises truly bring the idea home.
Charles tries to do right by Nelly. Fiennes shows Charles’ clear worship for the young woman without turning Charles into a moony, middle-aged fool. Charles never would become so lost in love that he would reveal the affair to the public.
As a novelist and therefore trained observer of human behavior, Charles recognizes his own flaws. But he’s determined to maintain his and Nelly’s good names and his own fame.
Whether or not “Woman” offers a true-to-life Dickens, Fiennes’ portrayal, neither heroic nor villainous but endlessly compelling, might make you want to re-read the author’s work. Especially “Great Expectations,” which, according to the movie, Ternan inspired Dickens to complete.