The film an Invisible Woman about the relationship between Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan is entertaining.
Abi Morgan’s screen play, taken from Claire Tomalin’s excellent book of the same name, extracts a number of scenes to create a microcosm of the original work.
The focus is on Ternan looking back 13 years after the death of Dickens, when she is living in Margate, having married the clergyman George Wharton Robinson. She then has two children of her own.
The recall starts from when she first met Dickens, brilliantly played by Ralph Fiennes, at the dramatisation of Wilkie Collin’s play the Frozen Deep in Manchester. Further events follow, as the relationship deepens.
The brutality of Dickens toward his wife shows through when he has a barrier built in the house between his and her part and in a letter to the Times practically disowning her.
I’m not sure really whether the relationship between the Ternan family (mother Frances (Kristin Scott Thomas) and sisters Fanny (Amanda Hale) and Maria (Perdita Weeks)) and Dickens is done as well as it might be. In her book, Tomalin gets the sordid tone of the relationship, namely that Dickens wants Nelly and in exchange is prepared to support the other Ternans to a degree as well.
There is the suggestion in the book that Nelly’s sister Fanny plays a little on the relationship to exact certain rewards in terms of her own writing career. In the film, the deal seems to be purely that Nelly is not much good as an actress and has few other prospects..Dickens offers the best option.
What actress Felicity Jones, who plays Nelly, does convey well is her sense of being a tortured soul. She wants to tell about what went on with Dickens. In the film she ends up revealing some of the history to clergyman William Benham, though what is not told is that he later proves a less than worthy confidante.
The element of Tomalin’s book that does go missing in the film is the desire of Nelly and most of the Dickens family to protect the reputation of the great man. This went on while he was alive, so there were almost two lives going on the public and the private. Nelly then continued this, with others such as Georgina Hogarth (Dickens sister-in-law), playing major roles. Georgina gets but one mention in the film. The one family member who particularly resented the caricature of Dickens as the Victorian family man was his youngest daughter Kate, the same age as Nelly, who later said to Bernard Shaw: “If you could make the public understand that my father was not a joyous, jocous gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch, you would greatly oblige me.”
It is this secret and lies approach that later tears Nelly’s son Geoffrey apart when he only learns of his mother’s life as Dicken’s mistress, long after she died in 1914. The film though ends with Nelly revealing some of the story to Benham and going on with her own life.
The Invisible Woman is certainly well done, the screen play a skilful take on the original book and the acting superb. But as with many dramatisations, those who have read the original book first can end up disappointed, they shouldn’t because film is a different genre. However, if you want to avoid that disappointment maybe watch the film then read Tomlin’s excellent books the Invisible Woman and Charles Dickens – a life