On a windswept beach in late-19th- century England, a woman strides purposefully through the dunes, cutting a dark, determined figure against the pearlescent light. She’s the title character of “The Invisible Woman,” Ralph Fiennes’s captivating film about the extraordinary — and relatively little known — affair between Charles Dickens and a young actress, Ellen “Nelly” Ternan.
If you read Claire Tomalin’s delightful 1990 book from which “The Invisible Woman” was adapted, you know the contours of the story; with screenwriter Abi Morgan, Fiennes smoothly works Tomalin’s wealth of detail into a visually sumptuous, engrossing drama that centers on Nelly’s ambivalent reminiscences of her relationship with Dickens, which commenced in 1857, when she was 18 and he was 45, and lasted until the author’s death in 1870.
Fiennes himself plays Dickens, who is already famous when the core story of “The Invisible Woman” takes place and who, when he meets Nelly, is producing a play with Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander), enthusiastically throwing himself into the writing, staging and acting. Nelly — played by Felicity Jones in a subtle, knowing performance — is the least talented of the three Ternan girls, a fact their mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) plainly acknowledges when considering Dickens’s attraction to her youngest daughter. As Dickens and Nelly’s affair blooms, it’s less a matter of carnal passion than arrangements — not the least of which have to do with Dickens’s peevish but long-suffering wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), and their 10 children.
Fiennes made a triumphant directorial debut a few years ago with a contemporized adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” and here he proves just as adept at evoking the well-heeled atmosphere of Victorian England as well as the unspoken psychological, political and social currents that ran beneath its placid surface. “The Invisible Woman” is less a conventional love story than a wise, often troubling contemplation of myriad modern impulses, from the lure of celebrity and public acclaim to the compartmentalizing of identity and the gender politics of Great Man-ism.
Fiennes delivers a particularly wily performance as the brilliant, socially activist Dickens, whose concern for the lower echelons of Victorian society seamlessly co-exists with self-absorbed cruelty toward his own family and, in time, Nelly herself. (A bonus arrives by way of Fiennes delivering a mesmerizing reading from “David Copperfield.”)
Still, “The Invisible Woman” is too sophisticated to let Dickens be an out-and-out-villain. Rather, like the author himself, the movie presents its protagonists as products of their time and human nature, always an amalgam of “the little good . . . the evil” of which we are all made.
Those words, of course, are from “Great Expectations,” which “The Invisible Woman” suggests was inspired by Dickens’s adoration of Nelly Ternan. For that fascinating fact alone, this compassionate, clear-eyed, beautifully conceived portrait has earned enduring value.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains some sexual content. 111 minutes.