The Invisible Woman is full of missed opportunities. Take the scene which recreates the horrific train accident that Dickens and his mistress survived in 1865. The film focuses on the fact that even in a life or death situation, Victorian propriety demanded that he and his mistress deny that they were travelling together. This is a good dramatic moment. But left out are the great author’s heroic efforts in tending to the crash victims, some of whom died in his arms, and his risking his life by climbing back into a train car hanging off a bridge in order to retrieve his manuscript of Our Mutual Friend. I myself once saw some pages of the manuscript at the Morgan Library and there were ruddy droplets on them a darker and more sinister color than ink. Dickens died five years to the day after the accident. There is mystery and fascination in these details, but all the film gives you is the gloomy emotional moment between him and his mistress, Ellen Ternan.
And that is the essence of what is wrong with The Invisible Woman. It shows you Dickens’s shattered family life at the near total expense of portraying the great man’s manic charisma and genius. Dickens had an oversized life worthy of any of his characters. We get glimpses of it at the beginning of the film when he’s shown hypnotizing people at parties and goofing around with his author pal Wilkie Collins, but by the end of The Invisible Woman Dickens seems like nothing but a plodding depressive, standing around in the shadows, ready to cry at any moment.
I get it that the draw of this film is to show us the dark love life of a genius. But it should’ve spared more moments to introduce us to the genius. Why couldn’t we see the Dickens household at Christmas, or experience one of his famous practical jokes? (He once barged into his future in-laws’ parlor disguised as a sailor and danced a hornpipe, only to return later the same evening and deny any knowledge of what happened).
I also get it that this film is about Ternan, the mistress, as much as it is about Dickens, the genius. But without a loveable Dickens we cannot empathize with why Ternan would sacrifice a life of respectable marriage to spend her life with him. The only reason that emerges is her desire for financial security because she was a failed actress. This makes her poor company as a main character. It might’ve been true to her life, but you can’t build a two hour film around such a marginally likeable person. No amount of top-tier acting, and there is quite a bit of it in this film, can rescue it from the gloom of its central relationship.
Visually, The Invisible Woman is as close to time travel as movies can get. I’ve always loved the Victorian period, and the costumes and locations are presented in glorious detail without feeling showy. As far as I can tell, the film was shot with only natural light. We experience many of the scenes from the perspective of an intimate onlooker, peeking around corners, catching glimpses in mirrors and windows, or straining to make out details in shadows. As a Dickens fan, I delighted in seeing the details of his life, even those which went unremarked by the characters, lovingly recreated. The result is bewitching, immersive, and totally convincing. I am tempted to watch The Invisible Woman again, just to spend more time in its world. But if I do, it’ll be with the sound off.