Based on Claire Tomalin's book of the same title, adapted by Abi Morgan, "The Invisible Woman" uses a flashback structure, anchoring the story in 1883, Margate, England, with Nelly a schoolteacher, recollecting her tumultuous affair with Dickens. Forty-five in1857 when he met 18-year old Nelly, Dickens fell in love, Nelly resisted and subsequently surrendered. They hid their romantic involvement from his wife Catherine, who did learn of the liaison. Subsequently Dickens, who didn't love Catherine, treated her badly, as shown in the film. Dickens contrasts with good friend Wilkie Collins who, by contrast, refuses to conform or hide his mistress and child.
More conventional, feeling constrained by Victorian morality, Charles and Nelly battled rumors that could destroy their reputations, though Dickens set Nelly up in a cottage in southern England. They also took refuge, temporarily, in France. Strikingly, Fiennes dwells on details, sacrificing some energy in this decidedly period piece.
At the Telluride Film Festival premiere of the film, Fiennes said he felt strongly he needed to replicate precisely the clothes as well as the incredibly restrictive, oppressive qualities of 19-century society. This he also achieves through the art direction, the spare use of music and the predominance of long takes and a locked down camera. But in "The Invisible Woman" the title character of Nelly remains too invisible, despite her centrality and her voice and presence guiding the narrative.
As in real life, Dickens' celebrity overshadows this woman trapped despite her spirit before emancipation. Felicity Jones expresses Nelly's frustration alternating with her passion, Kristin Scott Thomas is fine as her mother, and Fiennes is an energetic Dickens. And yet this infamous chapter in that celebrated man's life keeps Nelly on the fringes, in a subordinate position, ironically recreating the subjugation in which she lived. At a Landmark Theatre.