The Art of Concealment

This is my review of The Invisible Woman [DVD] [2014].

Worth watching, this film is fairly true to Claire Tomalin’s respected biography of Nellie Tiernan, the eighteen-year-old from a talented but hard up acting family, who caught the eye of Dickens at the height of his fame in his mid-forties. Perhaps inevitably, the film loses an element of subtlety in making explicit what Tomalin only surmises, such as the fact that Nellie miscarried a child by Dickens.

Ralph Fiennes conveys a strong sense of Dickens’ charisma, his hyperactivity, and callous treatment of his wife once he became obsessed with Nellie. Felicity Jones portrays well the qualities that captivated Dickens: not just her beauty and youthful enjoyment of life, but a sensitive and reflective intellect that made her a real companion, able to discuss his work with him. One of the most poignant parts of the film is where we see how she is knowingly trapped like a fly in amber, a kept woman in an overlarge house from which a view of Windsor Castle ‘seems to float’ as in a dream. She has to become visible to safeguard the great man’s reputation.

It does not add to the tale of the relationship to sandwich it in lengthy flashbacks between scenes of Nellie in later life as the wife of a schoolmaster in 1880s Margate, haunted by memories of Dickens. Part of the problem is that she looks too young (she was in her forties by then). However, I was interested to discover that in 1876, six years after the death of Dickens, she married at the age of thirty-seven a man twelve years her junior, passing herself off as twenty-three i.e. she must have looked youthful for her age.

I was surprised that the film does not make clear the thirteen year duration of her relationship with Dickens, until his death. More could have been made of her role as a possible inspiration for some of his later heroines, not just Estella in Great Expectations. The greatest missed opportunity seemed to me the omission of Dickens’ death: according to Tomalin, he became ill at Tiernan’s house and, to avoid a scandal, had to be put in a cab to be taken to his home, where he died in the presence of his family, as convention demanded.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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