Monday, 10 February 2014

Film Review: The Invisible Woman

I am freshly returned from the cinema after seeing a morning showing of the new film about Charles Dickens and his mistress Nelly Ternan, The Invisible Woman.

I've never had to do a film review before, how thrilling!  Well, to start with I loved this film, but it is not an easy story to watch.  I'll start with the positive stuff.

Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs Ternan with Ralph Fiennes as Dickens,
and Felicity Jones as Nelly and Perdita Weeks as Maria, her sister
It is an extraordinarily beautiful film, but not in a showy 'gowns-and-carriages' sort of way, rather in the everyday detail of mid-Victorian Britain among the literary classes.  The world of actresses and writers is shown in detail, from the plush interior of the Dickens' home to the sparseness of the Ternan women and their 'digs' as they work around the country.  Fiennes and Tom Hollander (as Wilkie Collins) are perfect in their playful glamour, celebrities but so curious of the world and their place in it.  It seems understandable that they would still want to explore, to enjoy not a normal life, but a strange jumble of acting and mingling.  It is during one of these bouts of acting that Dickens meets Nelly.  As Dickens says 'She has something', and their relationship is born.  From an eighteen year old girl to a middle aged wife of a respectable Headmaster, Felicity Jones portrays a woman who chooses to live an 'invisible' life and has to suffer with the consequences.  Fiennes as Dickens is loveable, charismatic, childlike and callous.  He looks picture-perfect, physically as you would imagine, using the force of his personality to make you understand why people were so captivated.

Michelle Fairley as Caroline Graves and Tom Hollander as Wilkie Collins
The supporting cast is superb, as you would imagine.  Tom Hollander is understated and subversive as Collins and Michelle Fairley is fascinating as his mistress.  They are a marvellously simple foil to the main couple, having no problem with their scandalous relationship.  The Ternan sisters and their mother are all actresses and this frames their rather dubious position in society.  For me, the most heartbreaking character has to be Mrs Dickens, portrayed by Joanna Scanlan, showing a discordant note to the romance.  Really, she broke my heart.

I could tell you how marvellous this film is, and it is, but there is more to it than just a fabulous costume drama.  For the likes of us, who like a nice bit of art, there are echoes of paintings within the films.  The most moving has to be the birthday party, which I felt referenced Frith's Many Happy Returns and provided, for me a very interesting theme to the film.  I felt that there was a stark contrast between the adult that people took Nelly to be and the child she actually was.  Children occur and reoccur in the film - the Dickens' children and grandchildren, the lost baby, the little lion.  Nelly is a child who is trapped in a woman's body.  Possibly that is true of all the women because how much control do they have?  They all are at the whim of Dickens who acts at powerlessness in a world where he is king.

I think I am meant to finish my review there and give you a star rating but you know me, I don't shut up easily.  One of the reasons I loved this film so much is that it tapped into a very real fear I have, no doubt shared by others. There is a scene in the film where Dickens pulls the 'my wife doesn't understand me' line, adding that the young Miss Ternan understands him and his work perfectly.  The 19 year old me would probably have completely bought that line and I would have swooned quicker than you can say 'David Copperfield'.  The somewhat older me sees it for what it is.

The scene that started me crying was the birthday party.  When Mrs Dickens arrives and delivers the present I sobbed for England because I am not 19 anymore, I am middle-aged, a bit grey and wrinkly, and found that scene not only sad but terrifying.  The two scenes where Dickens see his wife naked and then his rather brutal, wooden response were so horrible.  For me, it was a brilliant insight into my own fears that I was far more interesting when I was younger and prettier.  I did say that this was not an easy film to watch and beyond the frocks and fabulous special effects of the railway incident, I found the contrast between Nelly and Catherine Dickens to be a sobering insight into women's fears.

I urge you all to see the film and don't blame me if you cry into your Maltesers.


  1. Well, I hadn't even heard about it but now I'll have to see it. Thanks for the review!

  2. Unfortunately it's not showing anywhere near Newcastle. Just have to wait until it's on the telly.

  3. I also thought it was an excellent film. The costuming is fantastic! Wonderful level of detail. I read an interview with Kristen Scott Thomas in which she observed that in The English Patient she played Ralph Fiennes' love interest, and now she plays the love interest's mother. It says something about both the Victorian period and our own.

  4. It was only playing at our little Arty cinema and I had to see a subtitled screening as it was the only one I could get to. It seems a shame when really good films don't get bigger releases.

    Robin, I had forgotten that! Yes, well Mr Dickens was romancing someone a little younger than himself, shall we say? I thought Kristen Scott Thomas was marvellous as always. The costumes are just beautiful and make me wish I could swan around in a crinoline. No-one would notice I'm sure...

    Thanks for your comments!

  5. You would have to wear a corset to make the dress lie correctly. KST said it was terrible to have to wear it, though lots of Victorians claimed that it didn't bother them. Some even liked it (for the back support).

  6. I have two proper Victorian pattern corsets, one of which I wore for my wedding under my Victorian frock. They are, if not comfortable, then 'stabilising', but you feel exhausted after a while because you have to stand/sit/walk in a very specific way due to the restriction.

  7. When I first read of the cruelty shown to Mrs. Dickens by her own family, it took Dickens down multiple pegs in my estimation of him. She was young and pretty when they married. God forbid, she grew older and heavier. I'm so glad we don't have to rely on the "face" being our "fortune" as much these days.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx