When you watch Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena, and The Invisible Woman, you’re watching three different approaches to the words “Based On A True Story.”
I have no idea if these two relationships are historical, but if either one of them were absent , the film would not be as moving, because what they do is mirror society’s awareness of and compassion for AIDS victims. They also help the move make a solid statement about how bigotry and intolerance is a function of ignorance, how it’s the individuals you know who open your eyes to an injustice that is being done to their group. And the main Woodroof plot also makes a case that a single person can change the system, which is one of the Great Myths Of America.
The next two films are each about a woman who, in her youth, was boxed into a corner from which there was only one escape, an escape which haunts her years later.
As for what happens next, improbable is an understatement. The less you know about the story of the real Philomena, the more you’ll enjoy the movie—it has all the twists and turns of a detective story married to Pericles. Throughout, the two actors play perfectly against each other. Dench is delightful as the incarnation of innocence, but she’s nobody’s fool; and Coogan, an actor who always looks at the world as a series of unavenged injuries, is perfectly cast as a man who has to bite his tongue as he shepherds a woman who’s cheerful and open, who loves romance novels, and who always says her prayers at night, through what he believes to be the real world. But it doesn’t take long for the audience to wonder who’s shepherding who here, and that’s one of the movie’s constant joys.
A number of issues are raised that could be their own films—a reporter torn between telling his subject’s story and using that subject to tell his own story; the price society makes young girls pay for physical love; the sexual politics of the Reagan administration; a wronged woman who has more faith than the religious bureaucracy which wronged her—but because they’re presented the way they occur in real life, as moments which have equal weight with all the other moments of daily life, it’s left to us, as the audience, to read into them in order to see a deeper meaning. The screenwriters and the director tell the story by consistently passing up every opportunity to Spielberg the audience with a message. Instead, they lead you up to a moment, show you the moment, and move on. The emotional climax is right there, in plain sight, but no special attention is drawn to it, the director doesn’t hold the film’s breath with confrontational close-ups or shocked reaction shots. It happens, and it’s over. A small thing but significant statement from one character, which in turn generates a small but significant gesture from another. Such is life.
Philomena’s past is like the wings of a dove compared to the anchor weight that is Nelly Ternan’s secret in The Invisible Woman, a weight that becomes unbearable when Ternan, now Mrs. George Robinson, stages a student production of the play which marked her first meeting with the man whose mistress she would become: Charles Dickens.
Ternan’s story is told in flashbacks which seamlessly combine Nelly’s first person memories with third-person omniscient scenes which the young Nelly could not possibly have seen or known. And this flashback structure is not just a way to tell the story—it is the story. These are the Nelly memories which Mrs. Robinson (I know, I know) can no longer keep buried. They drive her to make long fierce walks alone on the beach; they distract her from her husband (who has no idea of his wife’s past). And they represent Ternan’s recognition that—whether or not their love was mutual or one-sided or predatory or irresistible—the moment Dickens chose her to be his mistress, all her other choices disappeared. Once that door is opened, there is no way out of the room. Nelly’s mother recognizes this, and tries to make the best bargain she can for her daughter; Dickens’ wife recognizes this, and tries to open Nelly’s eyes to it; and in the end Nelly herself becomes resigned to it, and it feels like a death.
Another movie might have let Dickens off the hook (think of what a self-exonerating mess Woody Allen would make of a story like this) but Abi Morgan (the screenwriter) and Ralph Fiennes (who directs and portrays Dickens) are playing a different game here. Yes, the camera acts as a substitute for Dickens’ gaze, constantly focusing on Nelly’s neck and shoulders, which are the only outskirts of flesh which a good Victorian girl is allowed to display in public. But it also looks unsparingly on Dickens himself. There’s a lost little boy look that Fiennes gets on his face, one that says, at one and the same time, “Please don’t make this difficult for me,” and “Please make this decision for both of us.” It’s the look of a boy caught cheating who wants someone else to either lie for him or take the blame. It diminishes Dickens as a human being, while making Nelly a larger soul than perhaps even she realizes. And the film is not afraid to point out that the men in this world embrace the idea of free love and open relationships because it lets them have their cake and eat it too, while serving crumbs to their mistresses and leftovers to their wives.
And—believe it or not—Morgan and Fiennes get away with something I’ve rarely seen done this well before. The emotional climax of this movie—the moment when Mrs. Robinson finally tells us what she thinks of Nelly Ternan’s story—is an impassioned defense of Dickens’ original ending to Great Expectations, the one where Pip and Estella do NOT get together at the end. You’d think something that literary would be dry-as-dust boring, but it’s not; it’s fierce and wrenching, it unites the personal and the creative in an outburst that explodes on several levels at once, all of them cathartic. It’s just, wow.
And you realize that the woman who couldn’t be seen was also, it appears, a woman who had to keep silent as well. Such a price to pay for love.