Marriage as traditionally conceived is challenged by this film about a woman who loved a literary giant.
Entertainment 3 (deliberate pace will frustrate some viewers)
Demand on Viewer: Moderate to High
In this beautifully shot film by Ralph Fiennes, we see the love of a couple who cannot marry, not at least if they wish to preserve his standing as a published author.
Charles Dickens is thought to have lived secretly with a much younger woman for the last 13 years of his life. How did this relationship develop, and what might it have been like for the woman? The social construct of marriage is examined, along with the role a male is allowed to play.
A Wilkie Collins play opens and closes the film, a nice touch, with lines delivered by Nellie, "To love is life." To really know and be known by another is more important to the protagonists than to deliver a sort of "product" to the world in the form of an outward contract.
The interesting and original feature of this story is that their affair does not end in some tragedy or over-wrought conflict. There are no duels or bar fights as a result, no one dies (even though Dickens' train accident was a close brush and is included in the film as a way to heighten the existential feeling between him and Nellie).
Not even his wife objects, though she is deeply hurt, as revealed in a fantastic scene by Joanna Scanlan that looks like a Velasquez painting. The high artistry of this film is nowhere more evident than in this scene.
Felicity Jones does a captivating portrayal of a character who must age and mature, and who must carry herself with an almost royal bearing while also feeling a depth of passion not present in the other women. This is a sensitive mixture of pathos and classical beauty we rarely see.
Ralph Fiennes' Dickens is a larger-than-life character, constantly in the public eye, but who nevertheless recognizes the essence of his own explorations in this younger actress. Both his and Nelly's character are shown to be very patient, sometimes agonizingly so, in order to follow their own inner directives about their lives, and each other.
Still following that inner directive, Nelly walks by the ocean every day in the years after Dickens'death. (His death by stroke is not portrayed in the film.) Even when she cannot walk there, she hears the sound of the water. A sympathetic admirer of Dickens provides an ear (and a way out) toward the end of the story.
"I do not feel the freedom you seem to see," she cries to Dickens in one scene. There is a sense of inner freedom that such characters convey, and that a penetrating mind like Dickens would have recognized.
Such freedom of mind and heart does not always extend to societal or sexual codes, and this meant a lonely existence much of the time for them. When one considers what would happen to a 45-year-old man trying to be with with an 18-year-old girl today, not much has changed since the 19th century.