Wednesday 23 October 2013

Film Review: The Invisible Woman (2013)

Felicity Jones as Nelly in The Invisible Woman

Claire Tomalin’s 1990 The Invisible Woman is the biography which was never meant to exist – of Nelly (Ellen) Ternan, actress and secret mistress of writer and famously paternal figure Charles Dickens. And now this biography, which clearly mingles critical concerns with a desire for popular attention, has been made into a sumptuous adaptation, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes.

I was lucky enough to catch the film at an early showing at the London Film Festival, prior to its general UK release date. The large curtained screen and huge auditorium made an apt setting for a film so concerned with the world of the theatre. The movie, like Tomalin’s book, manages to convey something of the milieu of the Victorian stage and the production of Wilkie Collins’s The Frozen Deep (1856), for amateur men and professional actresses, during which Nelly and Dickens first meet, is one of the most convincing and entertaining parts of the film.

What makes this work is the close attention to (especially visual) detail. I can’t think of a period film or TV drama with such wonderful costuming, sets and props –and the score and music which characters enjoy within the film is perfect. The visual effectiveness extends to the filmography. It is beautifully shot and the camera lingers on Felicity Jones (Nelly) almost obsessively – her face, her neck, her shoulders – to the extent that I predict a serious upsurge in interest in Victorian hair fashions when the movie hits cinemas in February.

And it doesn't just look good - the two central performances are top notch and the supporting cast (especially Kristen Scott Thomas) strong. Technical accomplishment is manifest in all areas of the film and yet, for me at least, it failed to affect emotionally and was a little uncomfortable in its ideological positioning. While Fiennes gives a pretty flawless rendition of a Dickens who is charismatic and attractive, but still potentially dictatorial and controlling, the character never actually progresses beyond the region of stereotype. In this story – one which it is hard not to see as factual rather than speculative when dramatised - Nelly is undoubtedly a victim. Even more than that, all women are by default victims in this patriarchal world. And, when so much of what I do revolves around demonstrating that this model is overly simplistic, and the theatrical and domestic worlds of the nineteenth century not so divided, this is more than a little gruelling. This is coupled with the sort of cod literary criticism which seems to be a prerequisite for any author’s biopic – it’s not enough to be pretty, girls; it’s GCSE-level criticism and talking about your emotional connection with his novels which will snare you your very own literary genius!

Some of these concerns, especially over the dichotomisation of gender roles, are a direct inheritance from Tomalin’s biography. But there are adaptive decisions which are similarly a little questionable. The Invisible Woman, as its title suggests, is partly about the erasure of women from history and the film evokes this idea of textual treasure hunt. There’s lots of material in the biography to be drawn on – pocketbooks, diary entries, telegrams, play texts – which give glimpses into Nelly’s existence. The film recognises and exploits this – uses real manuscripts and original copies of Household Words - as if to convince audiences of its verisimilitude. But it cheats its viewers. The central most textual moment – when Dickens signs the birth and death certificates for Nelly’s baby with a false name- is a fiction. No such document has come to light and the very existence of a baby is based on surmises from Tomalin’s most speculative chapter. The baby’s still birth – the most shocking moment visually and emotionally in a ‘soft-focus’ film – is what cements Dickens in our minds as a hypocrite, who has acted like one of his own villains and ruined a young girl, and to disappoint audience expectations about maintaining some level of accountability at this point is a little unsettling.

Linked to this is the failure of the frame narrative – Nelly’s emotional struggles, now that she is married and Dickens dead. Not only is it a little unclear why Nelly would be upset to lose Dickens, seeing as their relationship seems a little bleak, but there’s only so much running around windswept but bonneted on an English beach you can do (or watch). And when there was so much rich material out there – in the biography and beyond – this seems like a strange choice.

I enjoyed the film and think it opens up many of the areas of Victorian life I find most interesting in an accessible way. But a word of warning – don’t believe everything you see here. Dickens (and Collins and other men too) were subject to societal constraints as much as the women they loved, lived with and (occasionally) married. And they were both (not that the film would have you think this of Collins!) pretty good writers too.

Have you seen or read The Invisible Woman? What did you think? Let me know below, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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