TIFF Preview: Ralph Fiennes is Dickens in “The Invisible Woman”

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I’m posting some rundowns from the TIFF site as the festival kicks into high-gear this week. Here is one I hope to see, directed by Ralph Fiennes: “The Invisible Woman.”

Ralph Fiennes directs and stars as Charles Dickens in this opulent period drama about the great novelist’s passionate, years-long secret affair with the young actress Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones; “Like Crazy”).

Actress Nelly Ternan was performing in London’s Haymarket Theatre when she was first spotted by Charles Dickens, who subsequently cast her in a production of “The Frozen Deep.” The year was 1857. Dickens was 45 and had been married some 20 years. Ternan was 17. The two began an affair, which was kept a secret from the general public for the duration of their lives. Theirs has since become one of the great love stories in literary history, as alluring for the speculation it inspires as for the details on record as fact.

Based on Claire Tomalin’s biography of Ternan, scripted by Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady,” “Shame”), and directed by the great English actor Ralph Fiennes — whose directorial debut, “Coriolanus,” screened at the Festival in 2011 — “The Invisible Woman” is a rapturous chronicle of Ternan and Dickens’s relationship, which prompted the end of Dickens’s marriage, survived a train crash, inspired characters and scenarios in some of the author’s most beloved novels, and continued until his death in 1870.

Felicity Jones’s performance as Ternan brims with passion and intelligence — the latter quality being one of the things that drew Dickens to Ternan in the first place. Dickens himself is embodied by Fiennes as a complicated artist torn between his desires and ideals and his need to uphold tradition and avoid scandal. Enveloped in opulent period detail, “The Invisible Woman” brings us closer to this giant of nineteenth-century prose — and to the woman who sustained his lust for life in his final years.

Text by MICHÈLE MAHEUX; photo courtesy of TIFF