In some respects, biopics are getting better. More and more, filmmakers and screenwriters recognize that the entire sweep of a person’s life—even when said life was notable enough to warrant a movie—tends to be dramatically shapeless, little more than an artless collection of stuff that happened. The contemporary biopic solves this problem by focusing intently on one particular period or aspect of its subject’s legacy, as Lincoln did by sticking to the battle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. There still needs to be some convincing reason, however, to believe that the personal history in question makes for compelling cinema, and that’s what The Invisible Woman, which chronicles the passionate long-term affair between Charles Dickens and a much younger woman, ultimately lacks. Handsome and intelligent, it’s nonetheless a tepid portrait of a relationship that would be unremarkable were the gentleman not Dickens.
As its title suggests, The Invisible Woman views events primarily from the perspective of the mistress: Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), who first meets Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) as an 18-year-old actress in a production of The Frozen Deep that he was directing. He was 45 at the time, and married to boot; any public knowledge of their affair would have been ruinous for him, and very likely destroyed Nelly’s reputation as well. As a result, they move practically in slow motion, with Nelly deflecting his extremely tentative Victorian advances until it finally becomes clear that resistance is useless. Though Dickens’ wife (Joanna Scanlan) knows what’s going on, and is deeply wounded by it, she insists on maintaining propriety, forcing Dickens to secure lodging for Nelly under a false name so that he can visit her and engineer various other ostensibly coincidental encounters. All of this is told in flashback, 13 years after Dickens’ death, when Nelly has married another man (Tom Burke) and is running a boys’ school by the sea.
In addition to playing Dickens, Fiennes also directed, and his sensitive work here confirms the talent he displayed in his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.The film’s screenplay, however, by Abi Morgan, never locates any interest in this material that transcends mere historical gossip. Fiennes and Jones are entirely credible in their reserved English passion, but the affair itself is banal, no different from any other tale of lovers sneaking around trying not to hurt anybody or get caught. While those with only a passing knowledge of Dickens’ life may be startled by the real-life incident in which he and Nelly Ternan were involved (which shouldn’t be spoiled here), that’s the only instance in which The Invisible Woman finds a genuine pulse; for the most part, it’s content merely to provide a look at the secret sex lives of the rich and famous. Finding traces of Nelly Ternan in Dickens’ work may be profitable for literary scholars, but for viewers seeking a powerful love story, there’s nothing much to see here.