Tuesday, 25 February 2014

The Invisible Woman

I’m reluctant to criticise when so much effort was put into historical accuracy, but there were several levels on which I found the film about Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan disappointing -  one of which, ironically, was that of keeping over-close to the (very scanty) known facts.  Since virtually all that is known of the affair is that Dickens fell for Nelly in 1857, kept the relationship secret, using the name Tringham and a sequence of clandestine homes, and left her comfortably off when he died in 1870, the romance is entirely open to imaginative reconstruction, which is what drama can do. Dramatically, however, the film offered a rather reluctant, often sulky Nelly, who appeared the victim of a worldly pact between her mother and her paramour, and lived with lifelong, emotionally torturing regret (cue thrumming music) in a curious, psychological re-working of the Victorian moral code that predicted gloom if not doom to all women who ‘strayed’.   It was hard to see what pleasure either she or Dickens got from the affair as reconstructed - seemingly an unlikely scenario given Dickens’s over-weening sense of omnipotence, entitlement and impatience, and in filmic terms somewhat dull, despite a dead baby and a rail crash.  
That’s Nelly above, in 1858, and Dickens below in the same period.

I myself guess he was initially smitten by her girlish spirits cultivated through stagey ingénue roles, plus the admiring adoration he inspired in all on whom his favours were bestowed, and that later he enjoyed the make-believe of a dainty, loving wife in a cottage – there are a few such scenes in his novels  – and relished his celebrity success in keeping her a secret.  Perhaps to Nelly this was a happy, well-paid role to play offstage.     But that’s just one scenario; and whatever the possibilities, drama requires a compelling plausibility beyond that of lookalike make-up, costumes and creditable acting – which The Invisible Woman has in quantity, and to spare - great design, period detail and acting all round, so a pity the emotional dynamic was weak.  I thought, also, that the title went under-utilised; with Ternan’s story being so hard to document, her voice so silenced, her feelings unrecorded, in contrast to Dickens’ public life and posthumous fame,  the sense of her invisibility to contemporaries and posterity is a potent idea that could have been visually effective in a hide-and-seek manner as well as dramatizing the glimpses that history does vouchsafe.  To non-Dickensian moviegoers, the title must seem rather baffling.

I do like afterlives, fictional and factual. It seems perverse to complain of over-literal interpretations, but whatever the format, one also likes insight, imagination, formal flair, storytelling. And, in a movie, visual storytelling and flair. 


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