Monday, October 14, 2013


by D.E.Levine

A NYFF51 Selection

I always wanted to believe that the prolific writer Charles Dickens was turning out his stories and books because of a vivid imagination, immense creativity and in order to support his wife and 10 children.

That hope was dashed several years ago when through an exhibit of his personal papers at the Morgan Library in New York City, I learned that Dickens was a cad and a womanizer.

In this spellbinding period piece, Ralph Fiennes plays Dickens and also directs a stellar cast in a film about Dickens and one of his paramours, perhaps the most important in his life.

Already famous as an actor, playwright and writer, married with children, Dickens falls for Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), who is performing with her mother Frances Ternan (Kristin Scott Thomas) and sister Maria (Perdita Weeks) in Dickens' adaption of his friends Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander) play The Frozen Deep.

The beautiful Nelly (then known as Ellen) is only 18 when she meets Dickens.  Dickens is at the height of his career both in performing and publishing.  Nelly becomes the intense object of his desire and he pursues her relentlessly.  With her growing affection for Dickens, Nelly becomes more socially and emotionally vulnerable.

As they become closer and Victorian society whispers about their relationship, Catherine Dickens (Joanna Scanlan) becomes afraid of abandonment.  No longer the center of his affection, in fact on the periphery of his life, Catherine becomes more anxious and her children are equally distraught.

Although passionate with her, Dickens suggests she become his "hidden" mistress, realizing that he can never divorce and marry her, in fact never let his adoring public know that he has erred and deserted his wife and children.

While Nelly is angry, she cannot ignore his his passionate declarations and goes away with him to live under false identities and give birth to a stillborn child.  Injured in a railroad accident where Dickens doesn't even acknowledge he knows her, Nelly realizes that Dickens will never marry her and that she is the "invisible woman" who must share Dickens with the world.

The story is told through a series of flashbacks  1885 since Nelly eventually has married headmaster George Wharton Robinson (Tom Burke), borne him a son and settled at the boys school where he is headmaster.  Memories are evoked through rehearsals that the boys are having of a play by Dickens and Collins and by a visit to the graveyard where Dickens is buried.

Well cast, well acted and well directed, this is a film well worth the price of admission and a visit to the theater.