A tale of love complicated — if not thwarted — by prior responsibilities, intractable barriers, and the rigid high-society norms that frustrate its Victorian characters' attempts to live as they so desperately want, The Invisible Woman finds Ralph Fiennes proving as adept behind the camera as he is in front of it. Fiennes' film, his second as director, examines the secret love affair between Charles Dickens (Fiennes) and young actress Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), with a script (by Abi Morgan) based on Claire Tomalin's nonfiction study of the affair. The story comes in flashbacks: Nelly — now married and with child — remembering the bond she shared with the great author when she was just 18, a relationship that began after she and her sisters, guided by her protective mother (a captivating Kristin Scott Thomas), acted alongside Dickens in his playwright-friend Wilkie Collins' (Tom Hollander) production of The Frozen Deep.
Trapped in a loveless marriage to Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), a loyal and resilient woman who glares at her husband with equal measures of adoration and distrust, Charles sees in Nelly vibrant beauty and intelligence, while she spies in him not only grand intellect but also desire eager to burst forth. Despite their incompatible positions and obligations, feelings soon blossom between them, even as it becomes increasingly clear that acting upon them will result in misery for themselves and their loved ones — a truth never more piercingly felt than when the wife visits the mistress to deliver a romantic gift from the husband that had been sent to the wrong home. Worse, in the film, Charles orders Catherine to make the delivery.
The Invisible Woman is poignantly attuned to its characters' sorrow, born from thorny circumstances that have no suitable resolution. That's in large part thanks to Fiennes' artistry as a filmmaker. Discarding the Paul Greengrass-ian shaky cam of his directorial debut, 2011's modern-warfare Shakespeare adaptation Coriolanus, he employs a magnificent classical touch, repeatedly fixating on the image of the independent, adult Nelly walking furiously along a windswept beach.
His direction is precise and passionate. The compositions quietly speak volumes about the distance between Charles and Nelly (as well as their alternately joyous or despondent states), and Fiennes' assured edits and zooms express the material's roiling sentiments (including a particularly amazing one, late in the film, into the nape of a happy Nelly's neck). Without a wasted gesture, The Invisible Woman situates itself so close to its protagonists that, despite the 19th Century's decorous restraint, it proves a lush, pulsating work. In its every handheld camera pan around a theater stage, static master shot of patrons at a social gathering, or calamitous edit during and after a train crash that Dickens famously survived, Fiennes' superb technique stirs feeling and communicates thematic complexities.
That same acute formal elegance lays bare these characters. Bolstered by Morgan's incisive and tender script, The Invisible Woman plays out as a tragedy writ both large and intimately small. It's a saga rooted in Charles and Nelly's shared fear that no one can ever truly know another's heart, and enlivened by an empathetic feminist streak that, in opposition to the cultural forces that conspire against them, generously expresses not only Nelly's indomitable strength but also Catherine's dignity.
If Fiennes' direction is a wonderful surprise, his complex performance as a man of conflicted priorities and obsessions is not. In early passages, Fiennes glides about a crowded rehearsal space with boisterous theatricality and larger-than-life magnetism, demonstrating Dickens' comfort with — and dependence upon — the spotlight. For Dickens, Nelly is radiant, but she can't quite outshine his celebrity, and thus The Invisible Woman becomes, in a certain sense, the story of a man who can never deny or alter his true, self-absorbed nature.
Jones, meanwhile, is a revelation, matching her illustrious costar with a turn that burns with suppressed yearning and despair over a romance that she wants to reject yet cannot escape. Swept up by the affections of a personal (and national) idol, Jones' young Nelly initially comes across as a fragile innocent without ever seeming naive. That makes her trajectory toward heartbreak that much more moving — especially because it's clear she always knew this descent was probable but still risked it in the interest of irrepressible love. Nelly exhibits a delicacy that hardens the more she's exposed to the bitter realities of her situation and the consequences it will have for not only her but also her family. Jones embodies her with nuanced poise and depth, even as Nelly becomes a figure of familiar misfortune.
This is a star-making performance full of subtle sorrow and strength. Nelly outlived Dickens, of course. The film's signature recurring motif is the sight of her glancing over her shoulder, both in her youth and after he's gone, a woman longing for both an impossible present and an irretrievable past.