By Rachel McMillan, guest blogger
The Invisible Woman is a film that goes to great lengths to uncover the hidden Dickens, a Dickens unfamiliar to those who enjoy his happy endings and the moralistic brushstrokes that redeem Scrooge through Bob Cratchit’s tightly knit family.
Here, Ralph Fiennes has taken the sordid side of Dickens from Claire Tomalin’s biography of Ellen “Nelly” Ternan, and infused it into the film with no lack of passion, but a great deal of narrative depth and integrity. After the Toronto screening I saw, director/star Ralph Fiennes and his co-star Felicity Jones talked about their passion for the script as well as for the source material. The young Jones was challenged by the “meat” she found in the role.
At the same time, though, the film waded into soap opera territory: straining to find a dark side to Dickens that scholars know existed, without balancing his lesser qualities with his great talent.
The reviews and the revenue for The Invisible Woman have not reached their anticipated heights, and I cannot help but wonder if there are some people like myself watching it and wishing that, instead, they were wading through adaptations of Dickens’s work—or the work itself. During a discussion the heartrending scene where Ham rushes to save Steerforth, a rival for his love’s affection, and offers a sacrifice of grace so characteristic of Dickens, I found myself wishing I could leave the theatre, head home, and read the sequence again.
This isn’t to say that our curiosity about the lives of authors behind their fictional curtains is invalid. I, like most, thirst to learn more about an author’s life to see what experiences informed the proficiency of his or her pen. But by searching for scandal and parading it, we lose the genuine purpose of the beauty spilling forth from broken vessels. God often shines his beacon of light through those undeserving, and I would rather invest my time in the carefully woven and gorgeous incarnations of Dickens’s social and moral reformation than be privy to speculation as to whether he had illegitimate children.
Alongside the adultery of Dickens, the film examines Wilkie Collins’s unconventional home life, offering two opposing views of such a relationship. Whereas Nelly is initially reluctant to enter into a relationship with Dickens, Collins has set up a wonderful side life for himself, complete with children and a warm hearth. If the film is suggesting that such arrangements can work just fine, I wonder what it's really trying to say about Dickens' and Nelly's relationship.
I must remark on the sonorous music, the expert cinematography, and the palpable chemistry between Jones and Fiennes, and the structure. The film is neatly book-ended with a production of No Thoroughfare (co-authored by Dickens and Collins) and Nelly’s ruminating on her relationship with Dickens in the presence of a well-meaning minister. However, it was also heavy on the symbolism where I would have liked to see a nuanced subtlety.
At that Toronto screening, Fiennes spoke about the inspiration he drew from the Tomalin book and his passion for Dickens -- despite having read only Little Dorrit. He said it was exciting to see how Dickens lived. He also spoke of the allure of a motif of secrets and how people need to harbor curiosity about the life of one so famed and appreciated.
Maybe that’s true, to an extent. But I wonder what this says about our need to find the underlying conflict in everything good, and what that really means.
Rachel McMillan is a novelist in Toronto. She blogs at A Fair Substitute for Heaven.
Editor's note: David Perdue of the Charles Dickens Page has graciously donated a copy of the movie tie-in edition of Claire Tomalin's book The Invisible Woman. Comment on this review by 11:59 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 22, for your chance to win. (Winners of our previous giveaway are ineligible to win this one.)