The Invisible Woman

Charles Dickens may have achieved worldwide fame as a writer, but what really fascinated him was the theatre. Early in his career he applied for an acting audition (but missed it when he trapped a cold), tried prose plays (they’re pretty terrible), and for 17 years toured the world giving highly dramatised readings from his own novels.

He loved and idealised actors, so it wasn’t too surprising that he started a scandalous affair with a young actress in 1857 that would last in anticipation of his death.

Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady) has based her script on the biography of the same title by Claire Tomalin. Ellen ‘Nelly’ Ternan (Felicity Jones) is just 18, a member of a professional acting family, when Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) casts her in a play he’s producing in Manchester – a melodrama written by his friend and fellow-writer Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander).

Weary of his wife, and struck by Nelly’s intelligence and young beauty, the 45-year-ancient writer makes his feelings known. And though fearing social tarnish if the affair gets out, Ellen finds the attentions of the world’s most well-known writer impossible to resist…

Following up his applauded directorial bow Coriolanus (2011) – and again doing double duty – Fiennes helms with skill and subtlety. Where his earlier Shakespeare adap existing bounty of blood and thunder, there’s no melodrama here.

Fiennes makes telling use of subdued lighting, and his portrayal of the splendid writer rings right: a man revelling in his fame but insecure, impatiently driven by inner demons. There’s fine support from Kristin Scott Thomas in the small but key role of Nelly’s mother, and Hollander richly comic as the raffish Collins.

But it’s the invisible woman herself who makes the largest impression: Jones delivers her finest performance yet, the understated but eloquent play of emotions across her face turning over a wealth of contradictory impulses.

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