It was perched, a shining diamond in the round, on that narrowest of all flesh ’twixt iris and lash – note the Dickensian term! For a time I thought it was a blemish on the screen, or a flaw in an other wise flawless visage. Slowly, inexorably, the sparkling bauble became fuller and it was only when the laws of gravity caused it to teeter over the brim and lay a trail down porcelain skin I realised I had been transfixed by sunlight reflecting off a tear-drop. This formed from an overflow of fluid produced by the pain of memory. It was exquisite – and how actress Felicity Jones, garbed in jet black Victorian layers and bustle, could produce such emotion alone, apart from film crew, on a chesilesque strand, is beyond me. Presumably, with others gathered within her view observing, it would only add to the degree of difficulty to produce such inner anguish. It was only one of a number of scenes from the movie that will remain deep in my synapses. ‘The Invisible Woman’ possessed a number of sublime tableaux – set pieces if you will – that must truly have been a labour of love. Those responsible produced many lasting images of a bygone time and place – none better than that of the horse-racing at Doncaster. Initially it resembled one of Tracey Moffat’s posed human panoramas. This movie version focused on a collection of languidly chatting attendees, rigged out in immaculate period garb, before being charged into joyous choreographed action as the thundering hooves approach and pass. Wonderful. It is a credit to the director, none other than Ralph Fiennes.
His second outing in such a role is a revelation. How he constructed this evocation of the look and mores of another age made his product a feast both aural and visual. That he also had the duty of effectively playing the lead role as the great British novelist only adds to what a bravura effort it was on his part. There was a certain irony in this, not lost on him. As Fiennes states, in a recent interview, ‘So there I was directing and acting, and sort of the two things bled into each other.’ Those reading, knowing of Dickens’ predilections, will understand where he is coming from. If not, on seeing the movie comprehension will come as to just how difficult melding the two tasks must have been. He succeeds seamlessly. In all, to date, it has been one of the year’s viewing highlights.
Dickens has been described as eccentric by some reviewing this offering, but in truth I didn’t come away from this film having acquired that impression. He was perhaps somewhat exuberant on occasions, eagerly seeking diversions from a stultifying marriage in a time of societal stultification. He hung out with the racy Wilkie Collins, played with relish by ‘The Rev’s’ Tom Hollander. His mate led the way in pushing the envelope against the morality of the times, something the great man couldn’t quite bring himself to do to the same extent. But that wasn’t going to stop him following his heart – embracing, rather than suppressing, his infatuations – the latter being what was meant to occur. Dickens goes to great trouble to conceal this particular affair as he was a married man in the spotlight. He was the celebrity of the mid-Victorian period, performing in print and voice to a rapturous world. He felt he couldn’t afford to offend the punters in the manner of Collins, who openly lived in sin and bugger the consequences. When he was bowled over, skittled, by Ellen Ternan, a struggling actress, from a family of thespians, barely past the age of consent, he was well out of love with his lumpen wife, stolidly played by Joanna Scanlan, She was dour, exhausted from producing ten progeny and her husband’s oft unfeeling demands. There is, in reality, roughly the same age gap between Fiennes and Jones, enhancing its reality. Look at the image of Ternan – she was something, even by today’s standards and Jones captures her perfectly. The interesting role was that of Ellen’s mother, played by veteran Kristin Scott Thomas. She knew well her youngest daughter’s lack of acumen for the stage. She was savvy and forward thinking enough to see that a liaison with Dickens might allow Ellen to make her way in the world. There was no ulterior motive – just a concern for her daughter’s well-being.
In a recent Weekend Australian Review Deidre Marken writes an interesting column comparing this movie with the contemporary rom-com, ‘The Other Woman’ (gracing a multiplex near you). She writes, ‘And here’s the gist – infidelity is no longer a cause of shame and secrecy; it’s now an excuse for girl sessions and drinking cosmopolitans and braiding each other’s hair.’ Well Ms Ternan, if the film’s to be believed, engaged in girly sessions and hair braiding a-plenty with her sisters as her trysts were getting off the ground – but the point is taken. It’s not quiet the same thing. Once she was established as ‘mistress’, any notion of freedom she once possessed was taken away. For her the liberty of today’s woman was not possible in her situation, unless you were a battle hardened veteran, more able to cope with public censure, like Collins’ kept woman. It says something for Dickens (and his family’s destruction of his personal papers on his demise) that his relationship with Ellen Ternan, the inspiration for Pip’s Estella in ‘Great Expectations’, has largely been invisible to history’s view until recent times. This gorgeous, gorgeous film will bring it out in the open for people to see for what it was. Do try and view it yourself on a screen, large or small, sometime soon.