HKIFF: A Simple Story of "The Invisible Woman"

"The Invisible Woman"

In Ralph Fiennes second directorial venture, “The Invisible Woman”, he tackles the story of Charles Dickens’ affair with a muse half his age, Ellen (Nelly) Ternan. The film is a simple, straight-forward story that focuses exclusively on the affair and marital values of the Victorian period, told with no visual extravagance or grandiose costumes.

The story is similar to that of 19th century Victorian era romanticized novels about a mother whose main goal is to ensure her daughters have a secure future, either through marriage or work, typically as a governess. Reminds me of the Bronte sisters’ books, like Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, or Alcott’s Little Women, where women engage in social parties and events or become a governess in hopes of meeting a future husband or gentleman caller. In this case, the wealthy and famous gentleman caller is Charles Dickens who engages in an affair with a young fan, with the approval of the mother who does not think she could do better.

“The Invisible Woman” slowly builds up to Charles Dickens’ affair with Nelly Ternan and leaves a lot of open ended questions about what happens next. It made one simple statement about how men can have affairs openly while women have to remain hidden in the shadows. Nelly does not seemed to be very happy with that realization, yet she willingly remains tucked away in some isolated home, anxiously waiting for Dickens’ visits. Dickens goes about living a public life and does not even contemplate marrying her, in fear of risking his fame. At what point in the affair does he leave his wife? Does someone really love you if protecting their public image is more important than being together with you? Does Dickens just like the idea of having a woman around who worships him, and is she confusing idolizing stardom as love? If the families knew about the affair, what allowed it to remain a secret for so long?

The mother states that being married is often a lonely life, yet allows her daughter to continue an affair with Dickens, leaving her with a very lonely life. It makes you wonder why her mother would not marry her off to some decent man instead of allowing her to enter a life of living as a ghost.

It bothers me that once Dickens separates from his wife, why he would not openly acknowledge or marry Nelly since the world has already known that he left his wife and is an unmarried man. It bothers me even more that a beautiful young, educated woman would be willing to live in hiding and isolation for the sake of a man who can only devote part of his time to her. What a waste of a youthful life.

“The Invisible Woman” is a decent film with a simple storyline and too many unanswered questions about personal values and beliefs during the Victorian period.

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