The tragedy of director/star Ralph Fiennes’ uneven literary period drama The Invisible Woman isn’t so much that his Charles Dickens is an arrogant swot who can’t stop himself from swooning over a young woman who is not his wife. What gets your attention instead is the sparking charge that comes in the few close dialogue scenes between Fiennes’ Dickens and the young woman’s mother, Frances Ternan (Kristin Scott Thomas). She’s an itinerant actress, he’s a gadfly author who also loves putting on plays of his own work and, where possible, acting in them; all to hoover up as much acclaim as possible. The two share an easy understanding of artifice, the need to play a role. This knowledge creates a titillating electricity between the two. For a minute, you wish they could just run off and have an extravagently bad affair like the two actors did with The English Patient. It might have been an improvement on the affair presented.
In 1857, Dickens is just about the most popular writer in the world, but Fiennes makes sure we see every bead of flop sweat. When surrounded by crowds thrusting their hands at him as though he were the Crown Prince, Dickens looks in his element: overwhelmed but somehow content, as though all the fuss were keeping the demons at bay. Where Dickens doesn’t have any idea of what to do is whenever he’s in the presence of Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), the only one of Ternan’s daughters who doesn’t appear to have the acting gene. So it is that Frances is forced to look for some kind of sinecure, and the balding, nervously chatty writer of means who keeps hanging around even after the Ternans have finished working on his last play seems like a good choice. No matter that he’s in his mid-forties at a time when that was just about the limit of life expectancy and she was just 18.
As scripted by Abi Morgan from the book by Claire Tomalin, The Invisible Woman is a story where the woman in question is never asked what she might want, as though she were in some kind of arranged affair instead of marriage. As directed by Fiennes, and acted by Jones, it’s a film that doesn’t seem terribly interested in Nelly’s perspective. She’s a passive creature , befitting the age difference. But although the affair dragged on for some years, there’s little maturing for Nelly. Even in the dry and dramatically inert framing device that shows Nelly 30 years on, successfully married to another man, there’s little spark in her eyes or indeed any sign of what Dickens stammered on about decades earlier.
Fiennes is a careful director, as he showed in 2011’s muscular but straightforward adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. He doesn’t overwhelm his story or performers as many period pieces do with showy scenery; though there is one stupendous segment set at a race that serves little purpose but to show the smart set in all their Sunday finery contemplating the race, their heads whipping first one way and then the other. He lets the story breathe out, as Dickens and Nelly circle each other, warily at first but then increasingly fascinated. The moments of cruelty come fast and sharp, like the scene where Dickens answers his wife Catherine’s (Joanna Scanlan) perplexed insistence that he can’t keep a mistress secret: his reply of “Yes, I can” is as petulant as any spoiled child told he cannot have dessert before dinner. What Fiennes cannot do, ultimately, is conjure any real electricity between Dickens and the object of his affection. In the end, their affair seems as full of life as the bleak ocean the older Nelly walks on every day, dressed in black and wondering what it was all about.