This film is based on the study by Claire Tomalin of Charles Dickens’s (Ralph Fiennes) illicit relationship with Ellen Ternan (Nelly – Felicity Jones). I decided to see it a week after its UK release. It turned out to be quite difficult. The two independent cinemas in Leeds may screen it, but that is not yet certain. None of the multiplex listings I checked has the film in their programme. Finally I found it programmed at Bradford’s National Media Museum: though even here it was in the smaller of the Museum’s auditoria. The larger had Her; which had a dozen or maybe two dozen punters. The Dickens’s film had over fifty. I put this down to the dead hand of the distributors, accentuated by it being the Awards season. Our distribution companies clearly have little sense of British culture: Dickens may not be the celebrity focus he was in his own lifetime, but following on from his bi-centenary he remains a popular figure and writer.
The film’s title refers to the hidden nature of the relationship between Dickens and Nelly: hidden from the prurient gaze of the dominant Victorian public discourse. The film has been adapted from the book by Abi Morgan and directed by Ralph Fiennes. It has the expected graces of a British period film: beautifully composed and authentic looking production design and a sterling cast, including Kristin Scott Thomas as the Ternan matriarch and Tom Hollander as a delightful scapegrace Willkie Collins. The plotting however is less conventional. The presentation is elliptical, not just in the use of flashbacks but also in the ellipses from the description of the affairs development. I did wonder if the limitations of a commercial running time, 111 minutes, had not had an effect. There were several missing emotional developments, including aspects of how Dickens bought his passion to fruition. This fits with the sense of the title, the woman hidden from view: but I was aware of these lacunae whilst watching the film.
It is Nelly’s viewpoint that pre-dominates as she provides the main narrative voice. There are however sequences which she will not have seen. One is when Dickens has the connecting door between the rooms of himself and his wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlon, another fine performance) boarded up. One imagines that Dickens never told Nelly of this incident.
The absences in the film are not just down to discretion. We see sex scenes between Dickens and Nelly and also between Nelly and her later husband, George Wharton (Tom Burke). These throw an interesting and unexpected light on sexuality in the Victorian era.
Claire Tomalin has an excellent piece in The Guardian Review (01-02-2014). She describes how she persuaded Ralph Fiennes not only to direct but also to take the part of Dickens in the film – clearly she is a fine judge of actor and character. She also comments on some differences between her study and the film. These have affected the ending of them film, making it less downbeat. However, it also has the effect of making Nelly a less interesting and less complex character.
This is an excellent production and deserves better than the ‘limited release’ accorded it.