If Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus brought a tarted-up faux-verité aesthetic and a modern-times update to its adaptation of Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy, then the filmmaker’s follow-up is conspicuous for its lack of trumpery—as well as for maintaining the temporal grounding of its source material. Based on Claire Tomalin’s 1990 biography of the same name, The Invisible Woman is in every sense a period piece. Jumping between 1885, in which the titular character, Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), reflects on her earlier romance with the now-deceased Charles Dickens (Fiennes) and the time, some decades back, of their affair, Fiennes’s film feels not so much rooted in the past as it is mired in conventions about how to portray that past.
Fiennes shoots everything in a dull sepia-toned matte which both abets and mirrors the general flatness of the film’s drama. Dickens’s interactions with Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander), with whom he’s collaborating on a play, add some voyeuristic literary pleasures, but the central romance unfolds with a conspicuous lack of conviction. Part of this lackluster quality has to do with the lowered emotional pitch that Fiennes brings to the material, a reserve in line with his conception of the period piece as a hushed, essentially untroubling entertainment. And while the film explores something of the difficult circumstances of carrying on an illicit love affair in Victorian England, it scarcely goes far enough into illuminating the untenable circumstances that define the lives of Nelly, Dickens, and Dickens’s wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan).
But it’s in this last character, though reduced to a supporting role, that The Invisible Woman gets closest to endowing the difficulties engendered by a repressive sexual climate with something like a sense of pathos. The rotund and tired Catherine, having birthed 10 of Dickens’s children and continually endured her husband’s cavalier treatment, represents the sad endpoint for women in the classic conception of the Victorian family and the excellent Scanlan brings the appropriate sense of resigned understanding to the role.
When the film focuses on its central romance, however, it’s considerably less perceptive. In a scene where Nelly and Dickens, about to embark on their own illicit affair, visit the home of Wilkie Collins and his long-term partner whom he refuses to marry on principal, Nelly expresses her disapproval of the arrangement, showing the deep level of entrenchment that Victorian attitudes assume in the minds of the queen’s subjects. But even this observation on the film’s part seems rather obvious, and as the central pair’s relationship progresses and meets its inevitable conclusion, Fiennes brings little further understanding to the problem of impossible romance, except to note that it’s impossible, before whisking us forward to 1885 where we can share in the older Nelly’s sad reminiscences on what seems to her, but likely will not to the viewer, an endlessly memorable and inexorable love.