Ralph Fiennes-9-680
Photo by David Appleby - Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

As if we needed further proof of his prodigious talent, Ralph Fiennes delivers a magnificent performance as Charles Dickens while directing himself and a first-rate ensemble in The Invisible Woman. Working from a script by Abi Morgan (who explored a more contemporary figure in The Iron Lady), Fiennes brings 19th century England to vivid life. This is no ordinary period piece, as it casts a keen, modern eye on the mores (and hypocrisy) of the Victorian age.

Felicity Jones gives a fierce yet subtle performance as Nelly Ternan, the odd-girl-out in a fatherless theatrical family headed by Kristin Scott Thomas. She is just 18 when Dickens meets her while staging a play he has authored with the redoubtable Wilkie Collins, who is played with gusto by Tom Hollander. Dickens is the most celebrated author in the world at this time, an outsized personality who presides over a brood of ten children…but he is deeply unhappy in his home life, as his wife (Joanna Scanlan) scarcely understands his creative nature and is no longer sexually appealing. When young Ternan answers a last-minute casting call, with her mother and sisters in tow, he is immediately taken with her and makes subtle advances which gradually develop into a scandalous affair.

Felicity Jones as Nelly-680
Photo by David Appleby - Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The production design by Maria Djurkovic transports us to that era, and cinematographer Rob Hardy carefully lights his sets—from cramped apartments to spacious theaters—in a way that tellingly evokes a time before the introduction of electric lights.

Told in flashback, The Invisible Woman is not consistently compelling. Despite Jones’ fine performance, her character is aloof and difficult to empathize with at various junctures in the bifurcated narrative. Ultimately we come to understand the elements that shaped her and formed her grim, latter-day persona. Jones captures every nuance of this troubled young woman, whose name and very existence were wiped clean from the pages of history following Dickens’ death in 1870. Fiennes, too, conveys all the colors and moods of his famous character, while Hollander, Scanlon, and Scott Thomas provide excellent support.

At times, The Invisible Woman is as aloof as its female protagonist, but the acting and physical production work in its favor. It’s a good movie overall, but with those superior ingredients I was hoping for a great one.