We are all secrets to each other," The Invisible Woman hypothesizes before setting out to prove the theory. At least the film, about author Charles Dickens and his real-life, secret, long-lasting affair with a woman many years younger, is honest about the prime failing of many a biopic before it: an inability to give a sense of who these people really are or what makes them tick.
Ralph Fiennes directs and acts as the British literary heavyweight, but the main character is Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), a young actress who catches Dickens' eye. "She has something," he remarks to his collaborator, Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander). Nelly is certainly hot, but what it is he finds so alluring is difficult to ascertain. It's certainly not her acting talent, as anyone but him can see.
Not much is known about Ternan, though there's little doubt she was his lover and silent muse during his period of greatest literary achievement. Fiennes literalizes the mystery of who Nelly was by frequently foregrounding the back of her head or over her shoulder in conversation with those who are known in historical record. Nelly is a cypher. But The Invisible Woman makes every effort to at least see the world as she would have. So, the film settles into a lovingly organic piece about the daily life of these Victorian characters, a tactile costume drama down to their wrinkled clothes. The Invisible Woman takes the time to observe the pre-photography paparazzi who hound Dickens as well as London's impoverished angels with dirty faces who informed his novels.
As for what happened between Dickens and Ternan, The Invisible Woman shows a mostly chaste relationship. It's more interested in the logistics of the affair, including the complicity of Dickens' wife and Nelly's mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and sisters. How else was it that one of the most famous men in the world kept the many rumors of his mistress off the front page?
The Invisible Woman's framing device, taking place years after Dickens has died, might be the real best part of the movie. Given free rein to speculate, the quiet sequences feature a more fully relatable Nelly playing off an inquisitive, compassionate friend (John Kavanagh).
The Invisible Woman
Opens Friday, January 24th
Ridgway Cinema Grill