IT ISN'T every day that a new film features a former Church
Times columnist; but The Invisible Woman (Cert. 12A)
does just that: not Charles Dickens, an aspect of whose life is the
film's chief concern, but the Revd William Benham.
Besides writing for the CT under the pseudonym "Peter
Lombard", he edited William Cowper's poetry, and taught modern
history at F. D. Maurice's foundation for girls and women, Queen's
College, London. Benham was a great enthusiast for Dickens, and
also pioneered links between the Church and the theatre.
We first see the eponymous woman, Nelly Robinson, née Ternan
(Felicity Jones), walking disconsolately along a beach. It is 1883.
At the school founded by Nelly and her husband, whom she has
recently married, she has been rehearsing a play by Wilkie Collins
and, more to the point, Dickens. This unleashes sad memories of her
clandestine relationship with Dickens. She tells Benham, Vicar of
St John's, Margate, that she now "loathed the very thought of this
Thirteen years have elapsed since Dickens's death. In accordance
with Claire Tomalin's book, on which the film is based, John
Kavanagh plays Benham as a sympathetic listener. He is kindly, and
in effect ends the film with absolution. In real life, it seems
that Benham failed to honour Nelly's confidences - if not the seal
of the confessional - passing them on within her lifetime to
Dickens's biographer, Thomas Wright. The author seems to have been
more discreet than the priest: he published Benham's revelations
well after Nelly's death.
It is doubtful whether we would ever have known about her, or
had this film, if it were not for this apparent clerical lapse. And
that would be a loss; for it finely portrays the dilemmas
proceeding out of human frailty, passion, duty, and love. Tomalin -
naïvely, in my experience - suggests that the relationship between
Dickens and Nelly would no longer be generally regarded as sinful.
More realistically, the film does recognise their situation as a
contemporary moral conflict.
Ralph Fiennes, both as director and protagonist, shows us how
Dickens, whose advocacy of the poor had rendered him well-nigh a
saint in the public eye, fears being compromised. Fiennes plays the
part as a personality driven by the need for public adulation and
unhappy with home life. Nelly's mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) aptly
describes the Dickenses' matrimonial situation when telling her
daughter: "Being married is at times the loneliest place."
This is true for Joanna Scanlan's sensitively portrayed
Catherine as it is for Dickens. One could weep for the way in which
she is marginalised by her husband. When he eventually departs
their bleak house to be (secretly) with Nelly, literal shadows
linger about them.
Unlike Collins (Tom Hollander), who openly despises marriage as
a bourgeois convention, Dickens the Unitarian who has turned Broad
Anglican craves respectability. It is too limiting to say that
self-protective hypocrisy is the tribute that he pays to uphold an
appearance of virtuous public standards. Rather, the film works
best when revealing his shadow-side (and, by extension, ours),
something that, left unacknowledged, becomes a burden not only to
us, but to others, too.
Dickens, that great observer of the human condition, is unable
to bring his own complexities into the light, and he leaves poor
Nelly to shoulder the burden till Benham relieves her of it. At
least the parson got that bit right in a film that is full of pity
rather than blame.
On release from today.