More mood piece than melodrama, Ralph Fiennes' "The Invisible Woman" brings extraordinary delicacy and cinematic intelligence to the true story of a love affair that Charles Dickens kept secret from the time he met then 18-year-old Nelly Ternan in 1857 until his death in 1870. Told with a finely calibrated poetic obliqueness that draws the viewer into the relationship's gradual unfolding, the film represents a formidable achievement for Fiennes as both actor and director.
Told in flashback, the drama opens years after the author's death, when Nelly (Felicity Jones) has emerged from his shadow, reinvented herself as a lady, and married a schoolmaster (Tom Burke). As her husband's pupils prepare to perform one of Dickens' plays, an elderly local pastor and Dickens' devotee (John Kavanagh) probes the "friendship" she is said to have enjoyed with the famous writer, which unleashes the flood of memories that comprises the story proper.
As the film reminds us throughout, Dickens (Fiennes) was a man not only of the printed page but of the stage as well, a buoyant performer and crafter of occasional theatrical entertainments. That's how he meets Nelly, an actress in a family troupe that includes her mother (Kristen Scott Thomas) and two older sisters (Perdita Weeks, Amada Hale). When he engages them for one of his shows, it's clear that the outgoing Dickens likes all four Ternan ladies but takes a particular shine to the almost Botticellian beauty of Nelly, who responds to his very polite attentions with a mixture of shyness and curiosity.
At this point in his life, Dickens is an enormous literary celebrity, a point made vividly in a scene where he attends the Doncaster horse races and is mobbed like a latter-day rock star. Happy in the limelight and within his prodigious work regimen, he nonetheless is dissatisfied in his marriage to Catherine Dickens (Joanna Scanlan), a large and dowdy matron who has borne him ten children but provides no intellectual companionship.