Invisible Woman, The

The Invisible Woman (12A)

There’s something missing in this somewhat cosy biopic of literary colossus and serial philanderer Charles Dickens as essayed by Ralph Fiennes.

Maybe it’s something to do with deference. Maybe no one wants to truly clast an icon. But what emerges is a vague attempt at unravelling the complex nature of a man whose need for approbation was as overt as his roving eye was covert.

Except, of course, that it was not. In a glorious ensemble that boasts high-calibre talent such as Tom Hollander, Kristin Scott Thomas, Felicity Jones, Tom Burke and Fiennes it is Joanna Scanlan as Dickens’ wife Catherine who draws the eye and the sympathy.

She has committed the ultimate sin: she’s got older and got fat. For Dickens as played (and directed) by Fiennes it really is that simple. To fire his inner muse he requires a younger model. Step forward Ellen “Nelly” Ternan (Jones), a young actress in Dickens’ amateur shows and a fan of his books.

The Invisible Woman was adapted from Claire Tomalin’s book by Abi Morgan. It is a speculative and resolutely female story seen from a female perspective. The women are strongly, clearly drawn and largely presented as adoring (and occasionally all-seeing) satellites to Dickens’ bright, searing sun.

Dickens himself emerges as a shallow figure, his eye too obviously drawn to youth and beauty in an age where courtesy subjugates impropriety. The script presents Dickens in rather too sympathetic a light and Fiennes plays him carefully, perhaps wary of going too far.

History tells us that the rich, famous and influential enjoyed secret lovers. Think Cardinal Wolsey, Charles II and Lord Nelson. Charles Dickens sits among that number. However the whiff of scandal appears to float past him even though the affair with Nelly is an open secret among his friends, cronies and children.

A slow and stuffy drama that never really achieves a head of steam, The Invisible Woman is a missed opportunity. At its core is a star who should have kept the reins of the film but handed over the central role to someone else.

Star rating: ***

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