This slow-burning biopic focuses on Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) and the clandestine affair he conducted over many years with young actress Nellie Ternan (Felicity Jones), whilst steadfastly maintaining the outward appearance of a respectable family man. It’s a handsomely mounted production, directed by Fiennes himself, that appears to have taken much of its look from the great Victorian painters.
The story opens some years after Dickens’ death and finds Nelly, living under an assumed name and married to a schoolteacher, but still grieving for the ‘great love’ of her life. The school’s reverend (John Kavenagh) himself a Dickens fan, guesses her identity and encourages her to talk about her past, which is revealed in a series of flashbacks. Fiennes makes a good fit for Dickens, as he is the very picture of the man anyway and it’s interesting to see Jones, that most contemporary of actresses, in a period role, but it must be said that there aren’t many fireworks to be found in Abbi Morgan’s restrained screenplay. Dickens emerges as something of a creep and we never really learn enough about what motivates him to act as he does, repeatedly humiliating his wife of many years, Catherine (Joanna Scanlon) and his children, without so much as turning a hair. The story also examines the void between the great author’s true nature and the image he presented to his legions of adoring fans.
Thoughtful stuff, admirably played by a superb cast but ultimately, there’s not enough here to fully engage and entertain.