Charles Dickens may have achieved worldwide fame as a novelist, but what really fascinated him was the theatre. Early in his career he applied for an acting audition (but missed it when he caught a cold), tried writing plays (they’re pretty terrible), and for 17 years toured the world giving highly dramatised readings from his own novels.
He loved and idealised actors, so it wasn’t too surprising that he began a scandalous affair with a young actress in 1857 that would last until his death.
Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady) has based her script on the biography of the same title by Claire Tomalin. Ellen ‘Nelly’ Ternan (Felicity Jones) is just 18, a member of a professional acting family, when Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) casts her in a play he’s producing in Manchester – a melodrama written by his friend and fellow-novelist Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander).
Weary of his wife, and struck by Nelly’s intelligence and youthful beauty, the 45-year-old novelist makes his feelings known. And though fearing social disgrace if the affair gets out, Ellen finds the attentions of the world’s most famous writer impossible to resist…
Following up his applauded directorial bow Coriolanus (2011) – and again doing double duty – Fiennes helms with skill and subtlety. Where his earlier Shakespeare adap offered plenty of blood and thunder, there’s no melodrama here.
Fiennes makes telling use of subdued lighting, and his portrayal of the great writer rings true: a man revelling in his fame but insecure, restlessly driven by inner demons. There’s fine support from Kristin Scott Thomas in the small but key role of Nelly’s mother, and Hollander richly comic as the raffish Collins.
But it’s the invisible woman herself who makes the biggest impression: Jones delivers her finest performance yet, the understated but eloquent play of emotions across her face conveying a wealth of contradictory impulses.
Chasing Coriolanus with another multi-tasking success, Ralph Fiennes crafts a moving account of a secret affair – with Felicity Jones riding high as the lady in question.