Thackeray's decorated initial T

he novels and stories of Charles Dickens have a long history of adaptations to stage and screen, but this film, like Dan Simmons's Neo-Victorian novel Drood (2009), dramatizes the life of the author, not his writings. Drawing upon Claire Tomalin's excellent scholarly book of the same name, The Invisible Woman, presents offers a tactful twenty-first-century interpretation of Ellen Lawless Ternan, her affair with Dickens, and her life after his death. This excellent film, which has superb performances by Ralph Fiennes as Dickens and Felicty Jones as Nelly, prompts the question how can one make such a biopic from material found in a scholarly biography, or, to state the question more precisely, what has Abi Morgan, the screenwriter, left out and what has she added?

Left: Ralph Fiennes as Dickens at work distracted by thoughts of Nelly. Right: Nelly and Dickens at a climatic point in their relationship.

One of the roots of the word fiction comes from the Latin word that means not “to make up” but “to shape, to give form to,” and the single most important decision in shaping a narrative, say, for a film, involves deciding where to begin and where to end the story. Morgan has done a fine job excising what a book of scholarly detective work requires but what would clog cinematic narrative. Thus, Tomalin begins with detailed early chapters on Nelly's family and the lives of actors and actresses and ends with Nelly's later life and that of her son, who seems later to have been traumatized as an adult by rumors (evidence?) that his mother had been Dickens's mistress. Focusing on Nelly, the invisible woman, Morgan wisely cuts all this fascinating material that doesn't belong in the story she's having the camera tell. Furthermore, whereas Tomalin all too often has to use phrasing like “might have” and “probably did,” Morgan has to avoid the subjective and go for the indicative. Therefore, she presents as fact what has long been suspected — that Dickens and Nelly had a child that was either stillborn or died after birth. And Morgan also adds a scene for which we have no evidence but rings true and might well have happened, a scene during which Nelly's mother and older sister decide that since Nelly doesn't have enough talent to make it on the stage, to survive economically she will have to become Dickens's lover. Morgan also cuts some known facts and intriguing possibilities for the sake of telling a good story. She chooses to eliminate Mrs. Ternan's presence from the scenes of the famous train wreck; and to increase the sense of the fragility of Nelly's existence as a great man's secret mistress, she does not permit us to learn that Dickens in fact secured Nelly's economic future by putting in her name the brick cottage that we see after their return from France. One possibility that Morgan might have used but did not: the likelihood that Dickens suffered his stroke or even died at the cottage he had given Nelly and, dead or dying, was returned home to avoid scandal.

Morgan does a superb job condensing large amounts of crucial information into brief scenes. Pretty much all Tomalin's information about the tenuous financial positions of even successful actresses comes through in the scene when Dickens enters the Ternans' rather shabby rooms, and she brilliantly presents the dark side of Dickens's celebrity in a brief scene (included in the trailer) in which a mob of well-wishers surround and almost crush him.

Felcity Jones first as the young Nelly and then as an older married woman with a dark secret.

Enough of the script — what about the movie? Fiennes, who also directed the film, successfully channels Dickens: he looks like him, he has the great novelist's charisma, and he makes believable his incredible energy, passionate devotion, and selfish, even cruel behavior. The true star here, the center of our attention, has to be Ellen Lawless Ternan, and Fiennes and Morgan have wisely made the film revolve around her. Felicity Jones was perfectly cast as Nelly. As the still-innocent young girl she strikes one as pretty and pleasant-looking but hardly some great Victorian stunner who could immediately captivate the great family man, but when the camera at one point offers her to us in a close-up profile, her beauty, delicacy, and deeply-felt emotion all come through at once. So in later scenes do her strength of character, resistance to becoming Dicken's “whore” (her word), and her acceptance of the fact that she can only have part of the great man's life. (Still I would have liked the film to have made clear that Dickens lived part of each week with her at her home.) Given that this is a film about a passionate man's sexual and emotional relationship with a beautiful young woman — the very stuff of salaciousness and an excuse to include multiple explicit sex scenes — the film is especially delicate, so much so that one might think that they have consummated their relationship long before they actually have, and this is not a bad thing because the film emphasizes not just Dickens's attraction to Nelly but hers to the great novelist.

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Last modified 18 February 2014