This is the story of a woman that Dickens, his immediate family and his supporters and admirers, kept secret until well after the death of his children but whom Dickens supported up to, and after, his death. The film is the story of the greatest English novelist and his love affair with a beautiful young actress: think Shakespeare in Love set in the late Victorian period. But there’s none of the energy, poetry or sparkle of Shakespeare in Love in this film.
And the film misses the opportunity to weave the narrative around any one of Dickens works in the way Romeo and Juliet was in Shakespeare in Love. In fairness, one of the reasons may be that Dickens does not actually deal with the nature of the adulterous relationships between older married men and beautiful young woman in any of his novels. Nor are any of his female characters muses to artists or writers.
There are frequent references to Great Expectations which link the character of Nelly to that of a Estella. There’s nothing in the film to suggest that the relationship between Nelly and Dickens was anything like that between Pip and Estella. Dickens love for Nelly is not unrequited; it’s just that it seems to lack any of the desperate passion of the relationship in the novel.
It has been suggested that Nelly was the inspiration not only for Estella but also for Bella Wilfer in Our Mutual Friend, Helena Landless in The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities. What a pity then that the film does not explore the influence of the relationship Dickens had with Nelly and the characters in his books. If there were elements of these characters in Nelly and they were examined in the film, she would have been a far more interesting character than she is.
That at least would have given us some idea of why the two was so attracted to each other. As it stands it’s hard to fathom it. Indeed, at one stage it seemed more likely that Dickens would start an affair with Nelly’s mother Catherine Ternan, played by Kristin Scott Thomas.
Felicity Jones is a particularly beautiful Nelly, indeed more attractive than the original. It’s understandable that Dickens would be attracted to her but there is no suggestion of any physical passion between the two. Nelly is also an avid reader of Dickens work but the idea that he may have found this flattering or that she was a source of inspiration for him, is totally absent.
Ralph Fiennes has a remarkable similarity to Dickens.
He begins the film with considerable energy but his portrayal of the author runs out of steam as the film goes on. The film certainly emphasizes Dickens’ dissatisfaction with his wife, both in physical and intellectual sense, but it certainly doesn’t establish that Nelly provides anything that the marriage lacked.
The other major problem with the film is the use of the two time frames. The film begins with Nelly, now Mrs. George Wharton Robinson, on a desolate part of Margate, lonely and isolated and clearly bearing some burden created by her relationship with the now-dead Dickens, which she has clearly kept secret from her husband.
The main action of the film then shifts back to her meeting and subsequent affair with Dickens. The film ends with her confessing to her relationship with Dickens to another Dickens fan, the Reverend Benham who has guessed at her true identity. The nature of this “confession” is not revealed to the audience so we don’t actually know what it is that is bothering her.
Is she guilty about not telling a husband? Is she grieving for Dickens? Is she overcome by guilt as result of the nature of her relationship with Dickens? Certainly, the quotation at the end of the play that comes from Wilkie Collins The Frozen Deep doesn’t do much to help. Given that the story of a love affair is framed by scenes from Nelly’s later life, the film does very little to demonstrate Nelly’s state of mind beyond some shots of Nelly’s hollow eyed beauty and the desolate sands of Margate.
Overall, this beautifully shot film leaves the viewer strangely unsatisfied. It certainly doesn’t suggest any relationship between Nelly and Dickens’ writing nor does it provide any great insight into the nature of the love affair between Nelly and Dickens. Perhaps the whole thing just wasn’t really very interesting to begin with.