Charles Dickens had an affair with a younger mistress by the name of Ellen Ternan that lasted thirteen years until his death in 1870. The affair was kept mostly secret, despite the rumors that abounded during his lifetime- he denied it even though he left his wife of 22 years for the young girl, who was 18 at the time they met. Not much is known about the woman herself, hence the title of the film The Invisible Woman, which documents the affair from their first meeting, and mostly from her point of view, as it begins with Ellen (known as Nellie) during her marriage to her husband after Dickens' death, and flashes back to her young adulthood. The film seems to be an attempt to shed light on the mysterious lover of the famed English novelist and increase the value of her own life as something other than Dickens' mistress. The problem is, even after this movie I wasn't really convinced she was anything else.
Felicity Jones plays Nellie and gives a good performance in the title role, bringing some intensity to the part of the conflicted and intellectually curious young girl, trying to show us what someone like Charles Dickens would have seen in her despite their nearly thirty year age difference. She's the youngest of three sisters who live together with their mother (Kristen Scott Thomas) and all are aspiring actresses. They move in the same London society circles as Dickens, and Nellie in particular is a devoted fan of the author, pouring over all of his works and keeping them close to her at all times in a collection under her bed. She idolizes the man and when they first meet as cast members in a production of one of his plays, there is an immediate sparks between them. Dickens is played by Ralph Fiennes (who also directs this movie) as a jolly, amusing, and worldly soul drawn to the unconventional, and seems to be attracted to Nellie in spite of himself. He's not shown as a leering, predatory older man- in fact he tries to distance himself from Nellie at first, but his marriage to his wife (played by Joanna Scanlon from The Thick of It) has deteriorated so badly that there is no longer much affection between them at all, and she hardly seems to mind when he sends her in person to deliver his birthday gift of a gold bracelet to Nellie after it was mistakenly delivered to her.
Fiennes directs the film with a sure hand, taking care to make the interior rooms dark and dreary as they would have been in the 1850's, and there is some beautiful cinematography in the outside settings especially. But no matter how many shots we get of an aged Nellie (who is never for one moment convincing as a fortysomething woman- she always looks like a teenager) taking long walks on the beach as she agonizes over her troubled past, I just could not find myself interested in her internal anguish. Fiennes is far more interesting as Dickens, who of course is one of the most fascinating figures of the 19th century, and I couldn't help but wish this movie had been about him instead. Nellie is shown to be a smart girl, but a terrible actress with no prospects in that regard. Her mother is a bit relieved when Dickens wants to take her on as his mistress and support her for the rest of her life, because she knows she'll be taken care of. Nellie feels slightly guilty at first, but soon comes to realizes she has no better options, and after all, he does love her and is willing to leave his wife for her. But there's not much else to the character. Despite Jones' attempt to inject some internal life behind her eyes, I couldn't ever see this woman as anything but a blank slate. There's no sense that she gave up a future of her own to be taken care of by Dickens, if anything it seems she might have gotten lucky.
On paper the story of Charles Dickens' secret 13-year affair seems like it would be a juicy, fascinating subject to tackle. But there hardly seems to be anything truly scandalous that took place over the course of these events, and with a nice but rather unremarkable girl inhabiting the other half of this pairing, there's just not a whole lot of story there to tell.