Though the title would imply that this film is about Charles Dickens’ long-rumored lover, Ellen Turnan, “Nellie” (Felicity Jones) isn’t actually the alpha character here. Instead, it’s Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes), at the prime of his incredibly successful career as a writer, full of wit, wisdom, energy, fame, fortune, playfulness, celebrity status, and yes, a certain hubris. The kind that would assume he is entitled to take on an 18-year-old lover at age 45. And though, in the Victorian Era, he would be required to undergo certain subterfuges, like traveling in France under an assumed name, and claiming after a train wreck that he wasn’t traveling with “Nellie,” still, he separated from his wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), which itself caused a great scandal, and then set up his lover in a separate house, so he could visit her frequently (and leave for publicity tours whenever he felt like it).
There’s a poignant scene in the film where Nellie meets Catherine. Catherine advises her that Charles’ real mistress is his adoring public and that he would, eventually, leave them both for his true love: being a famous celebrity. The plethora of Dickens’ book-reading tours in his later years would seem to underscore that opinion.
Nonetheless, Dickens is portrayed here is a kind of tour de force, a human dynamo and irresistible charmer who wants to have it all, and frequently does, so his disdain for Victorian morality is predictable and apparent.
The irony is that his celebrated mistress is portrayed as struggling mightily with a guilty conscience. In a way, she has difficulty being “in the moment” no matter what she does: if she gives in to his blandishments, she feels like the “scarlet woman” (and she did indeed have to also play the role of “invisible woman” as well). But, she does find herself flattered by his attentions, attracted to his compelling bonhomie and compelled by his creative artistry, so she succumbs, but occasionally is seized by paroxysms of regret, which hardly makes her enthusiasm consistent or their relationship idyllic.
Much of this film is a retrospective from the present, when Dickens has long since died and Nellie, no longer a teenager, has now married a respectable man and had a son by him. She undergoes melancholy mood swings where she keeps recalling with fondness those early years of being Dickens’ “invisible woman.” So she’s not really “in the moment” with her own husband, either. She does, however, consider herself somewhat of an expert on Dickens’ many writings (since he read many of them to her aloud), and now directs childrens’ plays paraphrasing his famous works. (The only thing worse than bad acting is bad acting pretending to be bad acting.)
Though the camera loves Felicity Jones, this film doesn’t especially portray her character in a particularly sympathetic light. Her family, especially her mother, Frances (Kristin Scott Thomas), is strangely supportive of her affair, being themselves under the spell of Mr. Dickens’ celebrity, and also implying that Nell’s prospects as an actress aren’t very bright (this from a whole family of starving actors). The film keeps jumping back and forth in time sequences and is very quiet (and somewhat stilted) in most of its dialogue. The opportunity to impress the viewer with the white-heat magnetism of the romance is largely lost in the shuttle. In the one fully-clothed lovemaking scene, she doesn’t seem to be enjoying herself at all. So, the viewer is left with the obvious question: What’s the point?
Well, presumably, to give us a snapshot portrait of Dickens in his prime in Victorian England. This we get. The rest fades into hoop-skirt oblivion.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.