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Ralph Fiennes directs and casts himself as Charles Dickens in this period drama about the woman behind the literary master
With his critically acclaimed directorial debut Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes creates another successful period piece for his second outing proving he is no one hit wonder. The Invisible Woman is a biographical exploration of Charles Dickens’ love affair with Ellen Ternan. The hard and fast victorian morals traded in Dickens’ work have often obscured his more colourful and complex personal life, which Fiennes examines with tact and empathy.
However, this is not a story about Dickens, but about the woman who history had made invisible. Fittingly this story is from Ellen’s perspective not the scopophilic gaze that normally examines heroines of this era. We meet Ellen at the centre of her domestic world – pupils, husband and priest all wait for her to return from her brisk walk and conduct a rehearsal of a school play The Frozen Deep. The very play that first introduced her to the love of her life Dickens and the tool used to introduce us to her past.
The opening scene sets the tone for the film, the room is turned towards her, awaiting her command. So far so good, for gothic fiction was born out of the notion that when the woman is corrupted and the matriarch misplaced, the very fabric of society is threatened. Here we see a woman in command of her home and her hearth. This masterful Ellen is thrown into sharp contrast to the girl that we meet in flashback. In these retrospectives we see a shy, naive sweet young woman, who captures the heart and imagination of a vigorous and energetically youthful Dickens, and eventually agrees to flout conventions and live with him as his mistress.
In the last ten years British Heritage cinema has been going through a profound shift towards realism. No longer are we only allowed to listen to the illicit conversations of ladies as they talk to each other’s reflections in the mirrors of their private boudoirs. Or watch through windows as these distant characters confide in their journals. We are now allowed to explore fully rounded human lives, even ones revered by history. Fiennes’ Dickens is egocentric, sometimes neglectful of his children and cruel to his wife. We see him urinate, we see him lustful, we see him human. He falls deeply and passionately in love, we know this because we are treated to visceral close-ups where the audience, like its heroine, is lost in moments and remembrances. Jones’s restrained and quietly passionate performance perfectly mirrors the sense of entrapment for Ellen as she is asked to live her love in secret, or not at all.
Abi Morgan’s (The Iron Lady, Shame) well-researched and haunting screenplay allows us to explore the characters with psychological truth rather than a corseted moral compass. The result is a beautiful film, thematically intricate and visually sumptuous. It is the untold story of a clearly captivating woman who was by convention relegated to the sidelines and made invisible until now when society is ready to explore these far more interesting narratives.