Like some exquisite outtake from the film version of The French Lieutenant's Woman, another woman, wearing a black bonnet and a long black frock, walks hurriedly across the windblown dunes of the English coast. This is how The Invisible Woman opens: a solitary figure, full of agitation, moving against a wide, desolate landscape, the sea and sky churning behind her.
We soon discover the woman's name and the source of her disquietude. She is Nelly Wharton Robinson. She is the smart, keen wife of a school headmaster, and she has been rehearsing the students for a play cowritten by one Charles Dickens.
The one Charles Dickens with whom, for an intense and storm-tossed decade in her not-so-ancient past, she carried on a love affair. The much-celebrated Victorian author was married and had a multitude of children, but when he meets the 18-year-old Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), the youngest of a trio of sisters trained in theater and song, he is smitten.
Ralph Fiennes, who takes his sophomore bow as director (following his fine and fierce Shakespeare adaptation, Coriolanus), has cast himself as the famous scribe. Fiennes plays smitten with a look that could better be described as stricken. There is the glint of joy - and of urgent longing - in his eyes when he begins pursuing the young actress, but he remains terribly serious, terribly troubled.
And who wouldn't? The newspapers will explode with gossip of Dickens' liaisons, his lover. His wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), burns with humiliation and hurt. His grown sons are in dismay. It's no easy thing, keeping a mistress, especially when you're recognized by train conductors, by passersby. If US Weekly had been on the tobacconist's countertop in the late 1850s, there would have been paparazzi pics of the illicit twosome: Stars - They're Just Like Us! They cheat on their spouse!
Shot with a stillness that serves to reinforce the restlessness in its characters' souls, The Invisible Woman offers a fascinating view of a young woman whose eagerness and energy are slowly compromised by the secretiveness required from Dickens in the strict and judgmental social spheres of the day.
Jones (Like Crazy) gives Nelly's tragic plight a palpable anguish. There is no doubt that Dickens - who was mad about theater, about acting, about inhabiting other lives onstage and in the pages of his books - was in love with Nelly.
But his selfishness could manifest itself in cruelty, in disdain. And Fiennes conveys this colder, callous facet of Dickens' personality almost reflexively.
The Invisible Woman is a story of invisibility imposed by the mores of society, by the disapprovers and the rumormongers and by the arrogance of a man.
It's all crushingly sad, and crushingly good.
The Invisible Woman *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Ralph Fiennes. With Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, and Kristin Scott Thomas. Distributed
by Sony Pictures Classics.
Running time: 1 hour, 51 mins.
Parent's guide: R (sex, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz Bourse and Carmike at the Ritz Center/NJ