In 1857, the 45 year-old Charles Dickens (Fiennes) falls in love with 18 year-old actress Nelly Ternan (Jones), who will be his muse/mistress for the rest of his life. Years later, the new life she has made is haunted by that guilty secret relationship.
Following on from his impressive Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes confirms that he is as good directing as he is acting - no mean feat, you might reasonably argue. Playing Charles Dickens, Fiennes strikes what seems exactly the right balance of energy, enthusiasm and dramatic flair with a dark, guarded interior life. Directing a very fine cast through Abi Morgan’s take on Claire Tomalin’s fascinating if highly speculative book (there is no actual evidence of much of this story), he gives us not a conventional biopic, more an intense mood-piece made with a great eye.
The challenge is that Dickens was publicly sentimental but privately a control freak, emotionally distant from his nearest and supposedly dearest. He even burned all his correspondence so the “real” Dickens would elude posterity. The screenplay and performances confront that but don’t overcome it: his (and Felicity Jones’ Nelly’s) feelings are tantalisingly ambiguous and enigmatic. What we do know is that after Dickens, Nelly reinvented herself and married a younger man who believed she was 14 years younger than she really was. Jones, affectingly playing Nelly from bright, overwhelmed adolescent actress to secret-bedevilled, middle-aged wife, mother and schoolmarm (without ‘ageing’ make-up) is quite lovely.
On his death, Dickens was elegised at Westminster Abbey as the “genial and loving humorist” mourned by the world, and so we like to remember him. It still smarts, then, to be reminded of the callous cruelty with which he treated his wife of more than 20 years and the mother of his ten children. The most painful scenes in the film aren’t just between the stars but Joanna Scanlan’s dignified, heartrending turn as Catherine, commanded by her husband to call on Nelly “to see it” — eww! — and reacting to the open letter Dickens sent to The Times announcing their separation.
Attention to visual detail is above and beyond. Exquisite long, still shots are supercharged with longing, loneliness and eroticism. Here’s a cry from the heart, though: can we please have a moratorium on people in films getting out of bed and having a long piss? Verisimilitude be hanged, nobody wants to see it, boys.
One for lovers of ravishing craft, although the elusive emotional engagement is frustrating.