The Invisible Woman Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas. Directed by Ralph Fiennes. Rated R. Opens Friday.
The title character of The Invisible Woman isn’t, as one might expect, a Marvel Comics superhero; Nelly Ternan’s invisibility is entirely metaphorical. Such mandatory unobtrusiveness was the plight of many women in Nelly’s time, especially those like her who found themselves in relationships with wealthy married men. That Nelly’s long-term affair was with author Charles Dickens is what makes her life notable enough for a biopic, and director Ralph Fiennes (who also stars as Dickens) gives it a tasteful—if a bit musty—presentation.
As befits the extreme restraint of the Victorian era, the young Nelly (Felicity Jones) and the much older Charles express interest in each other merely through stolen glances and veiled references for most of the movie, as the celebrated author outwardly maintains fidelity to his wife and numerous children. He’s first smitten with Nelly when he casts her in a play, but it takes them until half an hour before the movie ends to actually consummate their affair, and that’s only after delicate arrangements are made both with Charles’ wife (against her wishes) and with Nelly’s pragmatic mother (Kristin Scott Thomas).
As a director, Fiennes takes a refined, stately approach that fits with the time period, and the art direction and costume design (which is nominated for an Oscar) are impeccable. That level of classy restraint can get a little dull, however, and a framing device in which an older Nelly is haunted by memories of her past serves little purpose. As a portrait of romantic longing, The Invisible Woman is too bloodless to create a real emotional connection, but it does have some keen insight about the relationship double standards of its time period, and about the way that sexual freedom was available only in a very specific fashion for specific people.
Although Dickens’ fame looms over the story, the movie does manage to counteract Nelly’s invisibility, shining a spotlight on someone whose existence wasn’t even publicly acknowledged by Dickens’ descendents until 60 years after the author’s death. Its period-piece trappings may be a little dull, but the story they tell is worthwhile.