Performing admirably both behind and in front of the camera, Ralph Fiennes depicts Charles Dickens as a boisterous man so taken with his own celebrity that he believes he can hide his affair with a young actress (Felicity Jones) from the press. This is a film of two strands. As a treatise on how celebrity can delude it is excellent, but Fiennes is initially less sure-footed when dealing with the central secret romance.
Adapted from Claire Tomalin’s acclaimed 1990 biography, the film is framed by a device in which the married schoolteacher, Nelly Wharton Robinson (Jones) is prodded by a Charles Dickens enthusiast (John Kavanagh) to own up to the secret affair from her past, when she went by the name of Ellen Ternan.
As in The Iron Lady, the screenwriter Abi Morgan makes much use of flashbacks and once again they prove to be something of an Achilles heel, ensuring a long-winded introduction of two large sets of characters in different towns and different eras, most of whom end up in the chorus.
In Margate, 1885, the school of Nelly’s headmaster husband (Tom Burke) is putting on a production of No Thoroughfare: A Drama: In Five Acts. The action then flashes back to a Manchester theatre where an 18-year-old Ellen arrives with her family of actresses – mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and older sister (Amanda Hale) – to perform in Dickens’ adaptation of his friend Wilkie Collins’ (Tom Hollander) play The Frozen Deep.
The one character who remains peripheral during all of this is spouse Catherine Dickens, who ends up stealing the picture thanks to a wonderful performance from Getting On star Joanna Scanlan. She plays the mother-of-ten as someone who is so protective of her husband that she seems more concerned about the threat to his reputation than the fact that she is being wronged. There is no kicking, no screaming.
Dickens is far from the stereotype of the manic control freak. Instead, in Fiennes’ portrayal, he is a hugely likeable character with a tremendous aura, who asserts control through sheer weight of personality.
He also loves fame – when he attempts to go incognito at the races, he seems pretty happy at being uncovered. He understands that being feted as the greatest writer in England gives him power and it is a power he is happy to use.
As for the title character, as Ellen, Jones is the hidden mistress; as Nelly, she is the one holding the secret. Yet in both roles, her main concern is being quietly dutiful to her man.
It is a shame that the transformation of Ellen into Nelly is poorly served by the flashback structure; it would have been intriguing to see one of Britain’s best young actresses performing outside of her comfort zone.