A revelatory performance by 29-year-old rising star Felicity Jones (“Like Crazy”) is the chief but hardly only virtue of “The Invisible Woman,” a superior piece of grist for the “Masterpiece Theater”/Merchant Ivory mill, so tastefully mounted and brilliantly acted that it wears down even the corset-phobic’s innate resistance to such things. Indeed, this second feature directing effort for Ralph Fiennes (following 2011’s “Coriolanus”) is that rare Brit costumer that feels vibrantly alive, pulsing with subtle eroticism as it charts the little-known affair of Charles Dickens and the 18-year-old Ellen “Nelly” Ternan. Bolstered by the added attraction of seeing Fiennes reteamed with his “English Patient” co-star Kristin Scott Thomas, this exceptionally classy Sony Classics release should romance highbrow arthouse auds during the competitive Christmas frame, while generating awards talk for Jones, Fiennes and an excellent tech package.
Adapting a 1990 Ternan bio by Claire Tomalin, screenwriter Abi Morgan (“Shame,” “The Iron Lady”) frames the action around two different stagings of Dickens plays. One is a high-school production of Dickens and collaborator Wilkie Collins’ “No Thoroughfare,” directed by Nelly (Jones) in a Margate high school in 1883 (13 years after Dickens’ death); the other is the 1857 Manchester production of Collins’ “The Frozen Deep,” directed by and starring Dickens, and the occasion of his and Nelly’s first encounter. She is one of three daughters in a “Gypsy”-like family of actresses; he is the toast of London high society, with a wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), and a sprawling brood of 10 children in tow. The frisson between the writer and the aspiring starlet is, however, evident from the start.
Back in Margate, living under a married name and dressed head-to-toe in black, Nelly trudges along the windswept beach a solitary, almost ghostly figure — a woman who has clearly lost something, and that something is what “The Invisible Woman” is ultimately about. Elegantly moving between those two time periods and a third — a fateful train journey from Paris to London in 1865 — Morgan and Fiennes trace the slow bloom of Dickens and Ternan’s passion, along with the growing whisper campaign that would ultimately destroy Dickens’ marriage.
At first, the author merely seems to be hanging around a lot, conveniently passing through on a book tour or speaking engagement wherever the Ternans’ own travels happen to take them. But these coincidental meetings soon become so frequent that no one can deny their careful planning — not least Mrs. Ternan (Thomas), who gives Dickens a stern warning about the need to preserve her daughter’s propriety, even as she tacitly supports the liaison, knowing it may be the best hope for Nelly (who lacks her siblings’ actorly gifts) to advance in society. But no one, at least initially, is more concerned about propriety than Nelly herself, who recognizes Dickens’ affections but tries to keep them platonic, and reacts with moral outrage upon a visit to the home shared by Collins (an excellent Tom Hollander), his unwed mistress and their child.
In a role that seems an invitation to puffed-up flourishes, Fiennes very skillfully keeps Dickens human-scale, clearly a man who craves the adoration of his public (and comely young women in particular), undeniably egoistic, but also flawed and vulnerable in unexpected ways, yearning for love but limited in the compromises he’s willing to make for it. Jones, meanwhile, wears her face in the taut pose of a serious woman at a time when seriousness was not deemed a feminine virtue, letting her guard down only by centimeters as she falls deeper under Dickens’ spell. It is a performance of such fierce emotional control that, on the two occasions when the actress cracks something resembling a half-smile, it is as if a tremor has passed underneath the cinema.
Though Fiennes is hardly the first filmmaker to tap into the restrictive social codes and barbed double-speak of the Victorian era, he renders it all with an unusually sharp, unsparing touch that, at its best, recalls Terence Davies’ film version of “The House of Mirth.” In one of the film’s most piercing moments, Dickens entreats Nelly into a late-night accounting session following a charity benefit, her mother drifting in and out of sleep — or pretending to — on an adjacent divan. Although no garments are removed, it’s a more carnal scene than anything in “The Canyons.” No less remarkable is a later encounter between Nelly and Catherine Dickens, in which the spurned wife makes it clear to the mistress that she knows everything that’s going on, without ever saying a word to that effect. The exceptional Scanlan (a Brit TV vet whose film credits include “Notes on a Scandal”) at first seems to be playing the bosomy Mrs. Dickens as a rather unfortunate scold from whom the writer would be fortunate to escape, but over her handful of scenes she deepens and humanizes the character until she emerges as a surprisingly tragic figure.
Fiennes has made a movie set largely in the elegantly appointed drawing rooms and country homes of the British upper crust, but the movie itself is anything but stuffy and decorous. The style here is (relievedly) more measured and restrained than it was in the bombastic, hyperkinetic “Coriolanus” (which resembled Shakespeare by way of Michael Bay), but Fiennes and ace cinematographer Rob Hardy (“Boy A”) go to great lengths to let the movie breathe visually, often shooting with a lucidly handheld camera and lighting that impeccably captures the oil-lamp interiors of the period. Production designer Maria Djurkovic’s work seems guided by a similar mandate, making the most of a modest budget to create period spaces that feel inhabited by real human beings rather than museum pieces.