Everybody knows who Charles Dickens is, but most of us know little about the writer's life other than the popular works he left behind. Ralph Fiennes' bio-pic, adapted from Claire Tomalin's book, draws back the velvet curtain on one lesser-known aspect of Dickens' life — his late-in-life affair with a young woman.
The film, as befits its title, focuses on the girl, whom we meet as a troubled thirtysomething many years after Dickens' death. As she takes long frantic walks at the beach, her story is told in flashback. Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), a struggling young actress nearing her 18th birthday, meets Dickens (Fiennes), who is charmed with her beauty and intellect. Nelly is easily smitten — Dickens is, after all, a celebrity — and her mother (Kristen Scott Thomas) tacitly approves the affair, seeing it as a fair economic bargain. The semi-secret affair is both a source of joy and growing consternation for Nelly, as she confronts the limitations of being a mistress. ("My name is whispered with yours and yet I have nothing," she tells Dickens.)
The drama is well acted, and rich with gas-lit Victorian period detail. But other than the novelty of Dickens' involvement, the material is all too familiar. We don't especially need another look through today's modern prism of how life was unfair to Victorian women, especially lively ones with a keen sense of self and purpose. And the film has trouble balancing its contemporary desire to reclaim Nelly's tragedy with the inherent sympathy Dickens engenders — as the celebrity, the man with power, the person played by the engaging Fiennes. But as these sorts of period dramas go, this one isn't bad — and you might learn some naughty secrets about Mr. Charles Dickens.