“The Invisible Woman” is so different in aim, art, tenor, and tone than Ralph Fiennes’s directorial debut, 2011’s “Coriolanus,” that it’s hard to believe they’re made by the same man. The first film is Shakespeare in martial mode, clangingly loud, stridently macho. “Woman,” by contrast, is intimate, painterly, feminine. It’s nominally about Charles Dickens (Fiennes), but it really concerns Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), the young actress — 18 when they met, to his 45 — who became his mistress and great secret, hidden from Victorian society until she began to vanish from her own life. Beneath the period décor and lamp-lit elegance, this is a story of a profound emotional crime prompted by profound love.
It’s also a master class in acting on the part of its two leads, and a testimony to how much can be conveyed when words serve social niceties rather than emotional truths. And it is a quietly ravishing film to look at in the preferred mode of a big screen. Working with the gifted cinematographer Rob Hardy, Fiennes uses natural light and the humming hive of 1850s London to create crowd scenes that are haunting tableaux of community, frame-ready images that suggest everything and everyone the heroine will soon give up.
Nelly, the youngest daughter of a theatrical family, first meets the great author as he’s mounting one of his regular stage productions with coauthor and bohemian best friend Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander). The play’s an Arctic melodrama called “The Frozen Deep” — the whole movie’s one long, slow thaw, really — and if Nelly’s not much of an actress, she’s a Dickens fan and an articulate one. There’s a moment by a window at dawn where you see a lonely man fall in love, drawn to a mind as young and ardent as his still is.
Her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas, sharp as ever) eventually twigs to the growing fondness between the celebrity writer and her headstrong girl, and we see maternal calculus in her eyes. There’s a conversation in which nothing and everything is said; like many Victorian aesthetes, the author assures the mother that his interest is adoration, not sex. But, of course, neither is it not about sex, and mother is no fool.
And, yes, Charles is married, to Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), who was there when he was young and unpublished and now, after 10 children and 16 novels, has nothing in common with her husband. A physical and moral stand-in for Queen Victoria herself, Catherine becomes the second tragic figure in “The Invisible Woman,” and Scanlan’s performance is indelibly touching. A scene where, at Dickens’s insistence, she delivers to Nelly a present of jewelry mistakenly delivered to her home says everything about the circumscribed lives of wives and mistresses in a repressed society.
There isn’t a lot of joy in “The Invisible Woman” — the film has been faulted for this in some quarters — and there’s hardly any sex. Audiences who lack patience or just can’t get on the film’s sublimated wavelength won’t play along, and it’s true that the energy flags in the second half. When I first saw this movie at a festival last fall, a woman in the audience rose afterward and asked Fiennes why Dickens and Nelly couldn’t, you know, get on with it.
Well, they do, although the way there is agonizingly slow (and, for that reason, kind of hot), and the script does make good on the rumor that Dickens and Ternan had a child together. Fiennes understands, too, that if the men in this society cause suffering — even the broad-minded artists — they also suffer. “The Invisible Woman” is scrupulously faithful to recorded events, including Nelly’s later married life to a loving, clueless schoolmaster (Tom Burke) and to an 1865 railway crash in which Dickens helped tend some of the dying. Even then, he couldn’t acknowledge Nelly as his traveling companion, let alone as the woman he loved, and we see the price paid for that in both their eyes.
The eyes, in fact, do much of the acting in “The Invisible Woman,” speaking past frozen faces and constricted sentiments. Fiennes disappears beneath Dickens’s beard and enthusiasms; he conveys a writer’s love of work and a successful artist’s love-hate relationship with the mob. But this is Jones’s movie and, more than her 2011 breakthrough, “Like Crazy,” it confirms how much she can express with a craft that only seems like intuition. Nelly is a terrible actress because she doesn’t know how to be anyone but herself; she’s an active, inquisitive spirit who slowly gets diminished into a beloved object meant for one man’s gaze only. Jones uses her eyes to let Nelly increasingly take the measure of that prison, and it’s her acceptance, rather than her resistance, that breaks your heart.
Dickens began writing “Great Expectations” not long after meeting Ternan, and the novel’s unreliable hero may reflect some of his own emotional guilt. The present-tense scenes in “The Invisible Woman,” taking place years after the author’s death in the seaside town where Nelly and her husband teach school, knowingly evoke the book’s opening chapters, with Ternan disappearing for long hikes on the mud flats as she tries to out-stride her past — “I walk at quite a pace,” she warns a nosy, sympathetic churchman (John Kavanagh) — and ending in a churchyard among the headstones. In the novel, that’s where young Pip met the escaped convict Magwitch. In this movie, so muted yet so ready to burst, it’s Estella who yearns to be let free.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.