January 24, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tom Long

Review: 'Invisible Woman' trades on familiar scandal scenario with an unexpected name

Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones star in Fiennes' second directorial effort, 'The Invisible Woman,' the story of Charles Dickens secret love affair with his mistress. (Sony Pictures Classics)

The scenario is disturbingly familiar: An older man abandons his wife of many years and turns to the arms of a younger beauty.

Hello, Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen and so many, many others. What makes “The Invisible Woman” such a nicely balanced film is while it certainly acknowledges the desperation, infatuation and near-sure tragedy involved in such a situation, it also captures the romance, as cruel as that romance may ultimately be.

The wealthy and certainly famous older man here would be the writer Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes, who also directs). As we meet him, he is perhaps the most celebrated man in England, adored.

He is also married to the portly Catherine (a wonderfully touching Joanna Scanlan) and father to a huge brood, some grown, others not. Then Charles meets a young actress, Ellen Tiernan (Felicity Jones), who has been cast in one of plays. He is smitten.

But the 18-year-old girl, called Nelly, is hardly a floozy. From a family of actresses, she’s starstruck by Dickens’ verbal gifts and kindness, but she’s afraid of being branded a fallen woman.

Still, he pursues, and they become lovers even as rumors of scandal spread.

All of this is told from the perspective of Nelly later in life, married and a mother, her past somehow hidden from her present. Except she is haunted by that early love. There are times Dickens is clearly a cad — he sends Catherine to give Nelly a gift, flaunting his indiscretion — but his obsession with Nelly, and their connection, is surely real.

Fiennes and screenwriter Abi Morgan (“Shame,” “The Iron Lady”) adapt Claire Tomalin’s book with delicate grace, presenting love as blessing, curse and, perhaps, inevitable force.

'The Invisible Woman'

GRADE: B+

Rated R for some sexual content

Running time: 111 minutes

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