The Invisible Woman – review

Ralph Fiennes shows his directorial skills with this adaptation of Claire Tomalin's biography of Charles Dickens' secret lover

Piercingly intimate and intelligent, this new movie shows how Ralph Fiennes is going from strength to strength as a director, and his on‑screen presence, sometimes rather desiccated and chilly, is here richly sanguine, as he plays Charles Dickens – the preening peacock of emotional pain. Screenwriter Abi Morgan adapts Claire Tomalin's pioneering investigative biography of Dickens's secret lover, Nelly Ternan, and cleverly builds in echoes of John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman.

Felicity Jones plays Ternan, first seen as a lone, cloaked figure striding across the beach, boiling with memories, and then in flashback as the teenage thespian whose delicate beauty and heartbreaking professional uncertainty bewitch the conceited Dickens at the height of his celebrity. Joanna Scanlan gives a shrewd and sensitive performance as Dickens's neglected wife, Catherine, and Kristin Scott Thomas plays Nelly's mother, complicit in the affair.

The invisibility of the title appears to allude to Nelly, whose status in his life Dickens never really acknowledged, but Morgan and Fiennes show us that as the wronged wife, Catherine was also invisible, and so was Nelly's drawn and haunted mother, who considered it her duty to stand aside and let the great author have his high-minded, tortured way.

Fiennes himself portrays a complex figure: a showman, an egotist and an applause-addict whose lovers and children were his enablers, but also a genuine artist and social idealist. This is an engrossing drama, with excellent performances and tremendous design by Maria Djurkovic. 


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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