Fan Fiction, by David Bax
I am in no position to speak with authority about what is fashionable in literary circles or even if literary circles actually exist. But I have known people – and perhaps I’ve been them – who have dismissed the work of Charles Dickens as populist melodrama. The twin problems with that complaint are that there is nothing inherently wrong with melodrama and there is nothing inherently wrong with populism. The exploration of the latter trait is what concerns Ralph Fiennes’ The Invisible Woman, which examines the relationship Dickens had with the middle class masses for whom he wrote and specifically the relationship he had with one of them in particular, a young woman who became his mistress.
Dickens (Fiennes) meets Nelly (Felicity Jones) when they are both acting in a play. Apparently, acting is something the man did in addition to writing classic stories. Despite Nelly’s middling talent – to make no mention of her youth – Dickens falls passionately for her. This is problematic for both of them as Dickens already has a wife and, an even bigger obstacle, a legion of readers who may be the only love to whom he can be faithful.
Dickens’ wife (Joanna Scanlan) has known him since before his fame and, in her epic loneliness, serves as a caution to Nelly. Nelly is a stand-in for all of Dickens’ readers and, truly, for all consumers of art everywhere and throughout history. We may think the creators and storytellers we adore are speaking directly to us – they indeed may be – but that doesn’t mean we can ever know them or claim ownership. This kind of love is a one-way street. Nelly has broken through from fan to friend to more but Dickens cannot for long love her any more than he did when she was part of the nameless horde.
Fiennes’ direction is stately and meticulous. Every frame is compelling and everything in it worth pausing and studying for attention to detail. But he struggles to achieve momentum from set-up to set-up. The film is a series of moments. Some of them – like the beautiful shot that starts on the sky then slowly finds Nelly’s face, gripped with anticipation, before gradually zooming out to reveal first that she is part of a crowd and finally that the crowd is watching a horse race just as the horses tear by, inches from the camera – are wondrous. But many of them are simple and mundane, featuring actors so drowned in period-specific garments that they struggle to emerge as individuals (though such cannot be said for the fantastic Michelle Fairley as an unmarried mother who confronts and attacks Nelly’s sense of morality and custom).
The Invisible Woman contains some marvelous insights into the relationship between audience and artist that could spark hours of conversation. But, as a story on its own, I doubt Dickens would have approved. It’s turgid and lumbering where his work was vital. I can’t imagine there are Nellys out there about to fall in love with Ralph Fiennes on the strength of this work alone.