Like his younger brother before him, Ralph Fiennes explores the secret love life of a British literary institution. He directs and also takes the lead role as Charles Dickins who, at the age of 45, falls for a young actress called Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones). Scandalously separating from his wife Catherine he and Nelly live a half-life together until his death. The story is told partly in flashback and partly by an older Nelly whose marriage is haunted by the ghost of her former lover.
Definitively an arthouse film this is no traditional period drama, Fiennes does Downton or similar. It has a similar feel to Bright Star, another love story with literary leanings. However unlike that film, and many other period romances, this crucially does not feel like a romance, and I have to say that I enjoyed it all the more for the suprising tone of the film. We are shown very little of Charles and Nelly's courtship, and a Victorian attitude to sexual scenes is employed; a brief glimpse of Charles' wife undressing, a soft focus shot of Nelly and Charles almost but not quite kissing, or a sudden flash of Nelly and her husband having sex, as if we had opened a door, realised what we had walked in on, and shut it suddenly. Instead most of the scenes between Charles and Nelly, show the limitations and the frustrations they experience in Victorian society and how they respond to them; the romance seems almost incidental. The most affecting and emotional scenes in fact are those showing Catherine (Joanna Scanlan) responding to what's happening; intellectually inferior to her husband and in middle-age unable to keep up with his youthful vigour, she is powerless to stop him falling for the younger, prettier, and feistier Nelly.
What I loved about this film though is that Nelly is not your average mistress; far from falling under Charles' spell she resists as long as she can, and does not lose her sensibilities and her awareness of the threat of becoming that which all good Victorian ladies feared, a fallen woman. She is enraged when Dickens introduces her to his friend Wilkie Collins' unwed lover and insists that he take her home at once. Bristling beneath her bonnet she berates him for showing her what could become of her. It is almost disappointing when she does succumb, but after a brief period of near domestic bliss living in France under assumed names, their happiness is ended when their son is stillborn and they are forced to return to England where they have no hope of living openly together. Despite this trauma, Nelly endures, and after Dickens' death in 1870 she marries. What we are not told explicitly in the film is that her husband is twelve years younger and she deceives him about her own age. I particularly enjoyed this exploration of the life of the older Nelly, unable to take any reference to her relationship with Dickens (the truth of which she also hides), she lets off steam by taking brisk walks along the beach, held together it seems by her tailored Edwardian clothing, and tightly pinned bonnet. Eventually she lets go and tells a friend about the truth of her former life, in a suspenseful scene in a graveyard.
I also liked the fact that the film doesn't disguise the fact that history tells us very little about Nelly and Dickens' relationship. Both of them burned all personal correspondence so almost all of this story is based on speculation and the gossip that survived. Fiennes isn't afraid of making his film both elusive and frustrating, like Dickens' public at the time we are eager to know the truth but are shown only snapshots of their romance, and the dots are never joined between the end of Nelly and Dickens' relationship and her successful marriage to George Wharton-Robinson. The storytelling style also reflects the title of the film and Nelly's character; we can never know the truth, never see the invisible woman who they both conspired to hide from the world. This is a quiet, languorous, and at times obscure film, and one which I very thoroughly enjoyed.