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The Invisible Woman: Charles Dicken’s other lover

by Mark Burger

Despite the title, The Invisible Woman is not science fiction or based on HG Wells, but it does dramatize the private life of another British author, Charles Dickens.

Adapted by Abi Morgan from Claire Tomalin’s bestseller, the film — which earned an Oscar nomination for BestCostume Design — stars Ralph Fiennes (who also directed) as the illustrious author and Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan, the young actress whose admiration for Dickens quickly turns to illicit ardor.

“She has something,” Dickens remarks upon meeting her, and although much older than Nelly and very much married — with 10 children — they pursue a clandestine relationship that will last until his death, although for propriety’s sake Nelly remains in the background, the “invisible woman” of the title.

Having played Shakespeare’s brooding, brutish Coriolanus in his 2011 directorial debut, here Fiennes is wonderfully lively as Dickens, a man of considerable social conscience but also one who revels in his celebrity status and the adoration of his many admirers — Nelly, of course, being one of them. Kristin Scott Thomas plays Nelly’s protective but compliant mother, and Joanna Scanlan plays Dickens’ wife Catherine, who remains dutifully silent about the affair to the end, no matter how bitter.

Yet it’s Jones upon whom the story is focused, and the actress takes full advantage of the opportunity, breathing complete life into an understated characterization. What’s unspoken between Nelly and Dickens is equally as important as what is spoken. There’s a graceful quality to Jones’ and Fiennes’ performances, and although The Invisible Woman sometimes moves at a too-stately pace, it’s a handsome, literate story that portrays its scandalous romance with no trace of salaciousness.

The Invisible Woman is scheduled to open Friday.

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