By Amanda Hodges

Boasting sumptuous cinematography and stellar performances from Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones, Abi Morgan’s adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s intriguing biography examining the story of Ellen Ternan and her relationship with Charles Dickens is , by and large, a compelling and subtle slice of cinema. Morgan, well known for penning gripping dramas like The Hour or the Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady, brings her skill to bear in fleshing out an unlikely tale in which Ellen’s life is viewed through the prism of her relationship with one of the most celebrated men of the Victorian age.

Dickens’ clandestine affair with the young Ellen exposed some of the writer’s contradictions, a highly public figure who was compelled, through the social conventions of the day- and perhaps his own temperamental inclinations too- to keep his personal life shrouded in secrecy. Fiennes is perfectly cast as the indefatigable Dickens, his dual roles as star and director working well as he brings not only a cerebral intelligence to Dickens but also a persuasive interpretation of the man’s chameleon- like identity, fluidly shifting to circumstance.

Tomalin herself has said that Fiennes, with his naturally ambivalent qualities as an actor, ‘was born to play Dickens’ and he certainly anchors the drama effectively. The Invisible Woman is though essentially the story of a woman ‘who’d been Dickens’ mistress and then went on to reclaim her life’, as Fiennes perceives Ellen’s position and he concedes that, as a motivation for getting involved in the film, fundamentally ‘it was her  dilemma that moved me.’

A profound melancholy suffuses many of the film’s early scenes as Ellen, now a young teacher living in Kent, grapples with the potent memories of the famous man with whom she’d been involved and whose influence remains pervasive and yet disturbingly secret. On the cusp of a new chapter in her life the past keeps hijacking her consciousness and it’s not until she can make peace with her younger self that the future can truly unfold, a dichotomy that Jones conveys beautifully.

Eschewing any temptation to create a sexual expose in favour of a more subtle approach that gives more weight to emotion than scandal, Morgan’s finely tuned screenplay   satisfyingly  allows Ellen to step out of the shadows at last whilst simultaneously probing beneath the veneer of Dickens’ professional identity to  reveal the contradictions at the heart of his life.

VERDICT: [rating=4]

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