Genius has its own mixed rewards. Charles Dickens knew this, as shown in the rich new mini-biopic The Invisible Woman.
Brilliance can often suffocate not only the bearer but also those who rub against it. As portrayed by director Ralph Fiennes from Abi Morgan’s script (based on Claire Tomalin’s book), Dickens struggled with the exigencies of fame while continuing his prolific literary output. Visually, showing the actual creation of his magnificent work proves easy — but capturing the inspiration behind it all proves impossible.
Dickens (Fiennes) finds early inspiration from his wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), who also bore him 10 children. In middle age, Dickens begins to wander before finding romantic refuge in 18-year-old Ellen “Nelly” Ternan (a persuasive and effective Felicity Jones), the liaison that serves as the movie’s core.
When first seen, Dickens joins best friend and co-conspirator Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander) to rehearse their latest stage play, an endeavor in which Dickens could exercise his unbound energy and enthusiasm. Mrs. Frances Ternan (Kristin Scott Thomas) brings her three daughters to participate, including Nelly, and Dickens immediately becomes smitten.
From this first exposure, Dickens draws closer to Nelly and she to him, all captured with restraint by director Fiennes. Instead of American-styled physical exuberance, the growing romance unfolds with lingering hands on shoulders, small smiles and furtive glances. The eventual “love” scenes are done so tastefully as to be almost nonexistent.
But this coyness coincides with the actual story and with Dickens’ stature at the time as England’s first great celebrity, hounded whenever he appeared in public. Dickens so knew how to hide in the shadows as well as in plain sight, as Fiennes deftly portrays, that not even his biographers have been able to fully describe the extent of his relationship with Nelly.
The writer’s cruel streak can be seen in a heartbreaking scene in which Dickens actually walls off his forlorn wife in their home. Later, she learns about his reported philandering and his abandonment of her only by reading a letter he has written to a newspaper.
Fiennes keeps his cameras tight, and his budget low, staying mostly on the principals and avoiding too many crowd scenes. As a result, the near-colorless film traffics in shadows and darkness, often with ambient lighting, which probably captures what everyday life was like in the late 19th century.
But while the atmospherics may be created on film, rendering the tortured processes of genius remains impossible.
The Invisible Woman
Rated R, 111 minutes.
Opens Friday at the Angelika Dallas.