Ralph Fiennes is an actor of deliberation; his disparate performances share a certain studiousness. As director, his debut film, 2011's Coriolanus, had a sense of the dramaturg about it. With The Invisible Woman, he refines his storytelling, offering a finely-wrought drama about love and the compromises of identity it demands, painting its characters against their historical backgrounds in painstaking miniature.
Nelly Ternan's best known to history as Charles Dickens' mistress, but for Fiennes and screenwriter Abi Morgan, she was a restless heart seeking someone worth her understanding, and thanks to the steely Felicity Jones, she comes fiercely alive in the empty spaces of her historical footnote. The story's told in impressions, small scenes that slowly build into biography, following Nelly's lifelong search for a true home: onstage, with her family, with Dickens, and without him by turns. And her struggle remains unfinished and immediate in the present, in which she's a married schoolteacher still haunted by that time in the shadows. Despite following both her heart and society's dictates, Nelly's has been a life of stark loneliness evident from the very first shot, in which she's a mere black dot marching across the low tide of a desolate beach.
Her life of quiet desperation avoids melodrama; her husband is kind, her work recognized, her intellect respected. For those around her, her association with Dickens is trivia from her childhood. (Historically, Ternan carved out a second life for herself by shaving more than a decade off her age.) It's a voluntary reframing of her past, but one under which she's never quite comfortable. This is a film as much about loss as it is about love, and Jones throws herself into the small frustrations and little griefs of a life half-lived, creating a Nelly that avoids being either a sacrificial maiden or a muse; the fear she might be seen as either would seem to be of greater concern.
Opposite her, Fiennes—as both director and actor—smartly resists making Dickens a Great Man of History, which itself reframes the traditional approach to the secret-love-of-a-public-persona narrative. Instead, his Dickens is merely a man—by turns inspired and selfish, earnest and thoughtless, penitent and determined to forgive himself. Politely callous to his wife (Joanna Scanlan), he has sincere friendships with Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander) and Nelly's mother Catherine (Kristin Scott Thomas, whose chemistry with Fiennes is as sharp as ever), but never quite reveals himself to either. He gives the impression of a man always holding something back for his art.
The central romance itself is kept rather chaste, proffered as an afterthought to their mutual and more difficult need to be understood. It's a wise angle on a historical love story with so great an age difference, especially one in which the participants were playing father and daughter only three years ago. This flawed internal life is deftly suggested in every glance and pinpointed rather than redeemed by the glimpses we see of Dickens' writing, and it's something of which Nelly is only too aware. She handles it with the same determination she shows about being necessarily hidden. (During a disaster, she pretends to not know him so that public doesn't discover his infidelity and pretends to him that doesn't wound her more than the accident.) And her knowledge of the man behind the work intrudes on the relationship she once had with his art, leaving a series of stings behind for her to discover later. And Fiennes skilfully keeps Dickens' true nature just out of reach, a loving man who's still always leaving. It's no wonder Nelly's haunted.
But The Invisible Woman isn't only Nelly. Within the quiet beats of Nelly's life, the women around her—Catherine Dickens trying to weather a humiliating public separation, Nelly's actress family scraping to get by, Collins' hidden mistress growing lonelier—all lead lives caged by expectations, stymied by a social contract which they can't circumvent. Fiennes beautifully visualizes their captivity with understated camerawork: The men are often in motion, in transit from one place to another, walking under a bright sun, while the women sit in a parade of oppressively decorated parlors, overstuffed with furniture, where the ornate wallpaper closes in. (Even as a married woman, Nelly's solitary walks are questioned and impinged upon.) This societal claustrophobia is most obvious in a visit Nelly receives from Mrs. Dickens (a note-perfect Scanlan) to deliver Nelly a present from Charles she had mistakenly thought was for herself. They share an anger at him for forcing the situation on them and have similar resentments about his deepest love being forever his public. Their mutual, mature sizing-up reflects two smart women aware that they're living circumstances not of their own making.
The Invisible Woman is an insightful glimpse into Victorian politics, one that echoes throughout the movie in delicate touches and lends its observations an edge that suit its heroine, whose heart remains as raw as it started, dragging ghosts along the way.