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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

The Invisible Woman

A thought-provoking, intelligent film which reveals as much about Dicken's secret affair as it does about nineteenth century gender politics.
By Karina Abadia
April 13, 2014
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By Karina Abadia
April 13, 2014
  shares

"Every human creature is a profound secret to every other," Charles Dickens tells his mistress in this tell-all tale of love and repression in nineteenth century England. Felicity Jones plays Nelly Ternan, an aspiring actress who has an enduring love affair with Dickens, played by Ralph Fiennes, who also directs the film.

It's based on Claire Tomalin's book The Invisible Woman, 1991. The biography sheds light on the 13-year affair which began when Ternan was 18 and Dickens was a 45-year-old married man with 10 children. He might have been the most famous author of his time but little was known about their relationship. This is partly because he was very careful to destroy letters and other correspondence between himself and Ternan.

The story begins in 1883, 13 years after Dickens’s death. Nelly is now a headmaster’s wife living in the coastal town of Margate. She's helping to put on a school production of No Thoroughfare, a play by Dickens and his friend Wilkie Collins, played by Tom Hollander. The burden of the memories of first love still haunt her but she can't bring herself to tell her husband about her past.

Through flashbacks we learn about her courtship with Dickens and how the relationship develops. At first she worships the famous author but as time goes on she becomes more resentful of the fact he will never marry her because of the scandal it would cause.

It's a slow-moving film and the long pauses are a bit overdone but the quality of the acting makes up for it. Fiennes' portrayal of Dickens is full of contradictions. The boyish charm, sense of social justice and sympathy for the poor and homeless show that he is a man of character and kindness - but the way he dismisses the feelings of his wife and children is utterly callous. Ternan gives a passionate yet restrained performance and when she finally does make peace with herself, it seems plausible, not forced.

A thought-provoking, intelligent film which reveals as much about a secret affair as it does about nineteenth century gender politics.

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