Run time: 111mins

Director: Ralph Fiennes

Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas, Michelle Fairley, Tom Hollander, Joanna Scanlan, Amanda Hale

Synopsis: Nelly, a happily-married mother and schoolteacher, is haunted by her past. Her memories, provoked by remorse and guilt, take us back in time to follow the story of her relationship with Charles Dickens with whom she discovered an exciting but fragile complicity.


Domestic bliss and peace around the hearth may often have been championed in his literary works but now we know Charles Dickens had a guilty secret – he kept a young mistress for thirteen years. It was not until the publication in 1990 of Claire Tomalin’s book of the same name that wider knowledge of Nelly Ternan emerged, revealing how she had been almost entirely written out of history.  Even her own children were ignorant of that aspect of her life until after her death.

This beautifully crafted film – Ralph Fiennes’ second as a director – flits between two time frames in this intelligent script by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, Shame)

We first meet Nelly (Felicity Jones) in 1883, as a married, middle-aged teacher, staging a school production of a play written by Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) and Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander).  She is clearly ill at ease and suffering inner turmoil. The story then flashes back to 1857 when Nelly as an eighteen year old meets Dickens for the first time when she is acting in a play by Collins. Dickens was also a keen actor and director and was immediately struck by her and her expressions of admiration for his work.

Soon Nellie’s mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) is remarking on the increasing frequency with which Dickens turns up in the same parts of the country as them.  Aware that public knowledge of an affair would damage both their reputations, Nellie was forced to remain an ‘invisible woman’ for the whole of their thirteen year relationship until Dickens’ death.  Never appearing happy or comfortable, Nellie was also appalled by the unmarried domestic arrangements of Dickens’ friend Wilkie Collins and Caroline Graves (Michelle Fairley).  She is constantly conflicted between admiring his literary talents and resenting her irregular situation in society.

Another ‘invisible woman’ in the life of the literary giant is his downtrodden wife and mother of his ten children, Catherine, played by the wonderful Joanna Scanlan.  Dickens may be remembered as a talented and charitable man, however here we are also privy to a more sinister side of him, as we learn of his malicious actions towards his wife and the humiliation of her and his children.

Already nominated for art direction, production design and costumes in this year’s Oscars, Fiennes’ beautiful film perfectly evokes this secret tragedy. His portrayal of Dickens as ‘a good man trying to be a good man but also a great man’ is spellbinding.

Images courtesy of Lionsgate Films