In the paperback copy of Great Expectations I read as a boy, the introduction informed me that Ellen “Nelly” Ternan was a teenaged actress whose affair with the much older Charles Dickens broke up the author’s marriage, and that Nelly’s taunting wiles made her the probable prototype for the novel’s icy Estella. Here were the movie makings for a Victorian version of The Blue Angel!
But Abi Morgan’s screenplay for Ralph Fiennes’s The Invisible Woman, drawn from a book of the same title by Claire Tomalin, treats both Dickens and Ternan with tenderness and tact. Dickens comes across not as lecherous or manipulative, but simply as a bottled-up man yearning to be embraced by a kindred spirit, while Ellen, uncertain of her place in the world, is both dazzled by the celebrity’s attentions and understandably resentful about having to keep herself “invisible” to preserve the novelist’s status as supreme champion of Victorian family life. All the ancillary characters are also treated sympathetically. Ternan’s mother tacitly encourages the liaison, but her concern for her daughter’s material welfare is so keenly projected, by both the script and Kristin Scott Thomas’s excellent performance, that we can pardon her. Dickens’s fellow author and right-hand man, Wilkie Collins, approves of the affair only because he regards it as a blow against societal hypocrisy. And Joanna Scanlan plays Mrs. Dickens with such quiet intelligence that we can’t credit her...
To read the rest of this article please login or become a subscriber.
About the Author
Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.