It looks nice but it doesn’t completely engage the viewer.
Technically speaking, The Invisible Woman is a very well made film that was based Claire Tomalin’s books. Ralph Fiennes not only stars in the film (as Charles Dickens) but he does a darn fine job directing the film as well. It looks very nice—with excellent detail to costumes and sets. The film really held my attention. So why, then, did I only score it a B? Well, the story itself, while interesting, had characters that I had a difficult time liking or caring about—plus the film often lacked energy and was a bit drab.
The Invisible Woman is the story about Charles Dickens and his long-term mistress, Ellen Ternan (Felicity Jones). However, the story is not told sequentially but through flashbacks that Ternan experiences as she thinks back at this relationship more than a decade after her lover’s death. At this point in the 1880s, Ternan has married, had children and teaches at a school in England.
When the pair met, Dickens was already world famous and the father of ten children. Ternan was an actress in one of Dickens’ plays but otherwise not particularly well known. While there was attraction on both parts, Ternan was hesitant since Dickens was still married and divorce was not an option back in those days. Eventually, the pair set up house together (at the insistence of her mother), though Charles was very careful to keep the façade that they were just friends—and often this meant being without her—which sounds rather unsatisfying. Also, oddly, when they were together, the movie never seemed to show a lot of passion or joy between them. In fact, their relationship seemed a bit muted and even dull. It’s interesting that the film did not over-glamorize this affair—plus it showed that the wife was treated pretty badly during this time and your heart goes out to her.
Mr. and Mrs. Dickens publicly separated and he had little to do with her hereafter—all because he apparently felt she wasn’t his intellectual peer. And this gets to the heart of the difficulties I had with the film. It’s hard to really care about a guy who’s cheating on the mother of his huge family and his reasons given in the film for the affair seemed rather limp. Yes, his wife was old and plump…having 10 kids will do that to you. Dickens aficionados also might not want to remember the author this way, as the novels he wrote had a strong conscience and pushed for social change—yet in his own personal life he was less than honorable.
My advice is that this film is watchable and worth seeing. But it also seems like a film you could easily wait to see after it comes out on DVD. Additionally, if you are looking for a movie from this same time period where there is much more life, energy and you care much more about the characters, try seeing The Young Victoria (2009)—a much more satisfying film all around. Or, perhaps see them as a double-feature.
Review by Lead Entertainment Writer and Film Critic, Martin Hafer