Considered a “literary colossus of his age,” Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) created some of the most influential works of the 19th Century. This story covers the period late in his life when his path crossed with a young and impressionable Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones).
As the film opens, Ternan appears to have the weight of the world on her weary shoulders as she carries around a huge secret – her former relationship with Dickens, that she has guarded even from her husband. Preparing her class for a production of a Dickens play, she pays close attention to detail to ensure that the production respects the language of the legendary author. Later, she scolds her husband for detailing her connection to Dickens, which runs much deeper than he suspects.
The film flashbacks to years earlier, when she was an aspiring actor and participated in one of his productions. Dickens, by this time, had achieved celebrity status, drawing huge crowds at his readings, new plays and even at the racetrack as fans couldn’t get enough of him or his work. Trapped in a loveless marriage of convenience to his wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), it doesn’t take long for Ternan to catch Dickens’ eye.
Soon, Dickens is calling on Ternan and providing opportunities for her mother, Frances (Kristen Scott Thomas) and family. Dickens even attempts to set her up in own place, similar to the arrangement that his business partner and friend, Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander) has with his mistress. Ternan informs Dickens that she has no interest in being his “whore” and that what she wants from him, marriage, he already has.
Yet Dickens persists even subjecting his wife Catherine, in one of the most humiliating scenes in the film, to appeal to her and letting Ternan know how fond her husband is with her. Ignoring her better judgment and succumbing to her feelings for Dickens, she agrees to become his mistress and live their relationship in the shadows.
Based on the Claire Tomalin’s book The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, Fiennes creates a compelling drama that focuses not only on Dickens being influenced by his muse while creating his literary classic, Great Expectations, but how he callously discards his family in pursuit of the young beauty.
Photographed angelically throughout the proceedings, Jones provides a sharp contrast to the stodgy Catherine. Much of the film deals with her inner conflict of falling for genius while surrendering to his charismatic charm. While Scanlan, doesn’t have a lot of screen time, she shines nevertheless as the woman scorned, while also elicits plenty of sympathy as she is shabbily treated for reasons only that Dickens simply tired of her.
While audiences may object to Ternan actions, Fiennes’ film clearly demonstrates the strong pull Dickens had on her life and she on his art.