All great novelists have hidden lives. They are the ones lived on their pages. They are the rich, deep, uncrackable mysteries that live on in print because no one ever fully fathoms great literature, otherwise they’d stop reading it. But the hidden life in The Invisible Woman is, we might have guessed, the usual one. Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) had a bit on the side. Her name was Ellen Ternan (Felicity Jones).
For biog gluttons that tidbit is as interesting as the books. So here they are, fancy-dressed Ralph and Felicity, fine-tooling sweet nothings to each other while defying prying Victorian society. It’s easy, and probably healthy, to be impatient with biopics. (Read the books! Never mind the damn lives!) But The Invisible Woman is skilled, handcrafted filming. A sensitive script from Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, Shame); an immersive sense of period (terrific wallpapers); and moments when the human feelings jump up and bite you.
Fiennes, also directing, may not be a natural choice as Dickens: too gentle. He is a pint of mild sometimes modulating into a pint of bitter, never into a throat-burning glass of spirits. Skill and will get him through. Jones is excellent in the slender emotional space her character is allowed: the almost-tremors, the almost-tears, the wraiths of rainbow-generating smiles. It’s the film’s small, quasi-serendipitous moments that remain with us. The night policeman who passes Dickens quarrelling with Ellen on her doorstep: “Is this woman troubling you, sir?” (A male chauvinist society fully defined in five seconds.) Or the strange, poignant little hiccups of grief that precede her tears when Mrs Dickens (Joanna Scanlan) visits Ellen to hand over – on Charles’s apparent orders – a brooch she received by mistake. This time it’s the cruelty of love fully defined, in five seconds plus a bit.