Seeking out the

5000 greatest films

in a century of cinema

The Invisible Woman

Directed by Ralph Fiennes
Produced by Stewart Mackinnon, Christian Baute, Carolyn Marks Blackwood, and Gabrielle Tana
Screenplay by Abi Morgan Based on the book The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin
With: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Michelle Fairley, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Hollander, Perdita Weeks, Tom Burke, Joanna Scanlan, Charlotte Hope, and John Kavanagh
Cinematography: Rob Hardy
Editing: Nicolas Gaster
Music: Ilan Eshkeri
Runtime: 111 min
Release Date: 21 February 2014
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color: Color

The Invisible Woman, Ralph Fiennes's biographical drama about the secret mistress of Charles Dickens, is an elegant production but a dull film. The 1850’s gender politics are certainly interesting, as are the recreations of the era’s theater and lecture circuits, but the film's dreary, uninspiring tone weigh it down. Felicity Jones (Like Crazy) gives a splendid performance as Nelly Ternan, the eighteen year-old actress with whom the forty-five year old Dickens begins an illicit affair. The cinematography, costumes and production design are as rich and detailed as we’ve come to expect from modern period films. All the right ingredients are present for an eye-opening and satisfying picture. Unfortunately, Fiennes's performance as Dickens is as inert as his direction. The film plods along, never giving us any sense of how this relationship affected the great novelist and, more importantly, we can only guess at its impact on Ternan--ostensibly the film’s main character. The movie seems to want to make a comment on the limited choices for women during this historical period, but none of the female characters are adequately fleshed out. Even Dickens’ wife, beautifully played by Joanna Scanlan (Notes on a Scandal, Girl with a Pearl Earring), isn’t given sufficient screen time. Perhaps her limited appearance is a conscious choice, a way of portraying how little attention Dickens gave his wife during this period.  If that is the case, then I wish we got to understand more about Dickens himself, since a great deal of the film focuses on his daily activities. The Invisible Woman doesn’t convince me that the relationship the author had with this young woman was much more than a brief chapter in the larger story of his career. The film implies, however, that this affair was the central narrative of Ternan’s life.  Screenwriter Abi Morgan bookends the story with scenes showing Ternan as an older, married woman but this framing device does not provide much insight into her mind and heart.