Loneliness, love and secrecy are at the heart of this beautiful story.
Loneliness is what Dickens feels, surrounded paradoxically as he is by admirers, well-wishers, friends and a large family.
Love is what he needs and does not have with a wife who cannot understand his complexities. Love is also what he feels for young Ellen Ternan (whom he affectionately calls Nelly), the 18-year-old daughter of an actress he knows and befriends. Love for Nelly is what she cannot feel for him, a much older man, and one who is married, however much she respects him as a writer and appreciates his generosity toward her family.
Secrecy is what must be maintained at all costs as the yearning of Dickens for her intensifies. She must be protected from scandal. Along with her charm, intelligence and beauty, her purity and integrity are what Dickens loves in her.
But all is quite problematic in the beginning because she will not yield to him. Her moral standards are higher than his, which he sees, and which in turn deepen his regard for her.
Dickens is caught in the trap of success, the prison of wealth and fame. A public man, the property of everyone, he is forced to scramble for private stolen moments. Work for him becomes compulsion and refuge, a place of isolation and silence where he can pause to breathe again.
What does Nelly represent to him? Radical change: freshness, freedom, hope, opportunity. While there is still time he wants a different kind of life, an honest one with love at its core. He is tired of the spectacle of respectability, the respectable face he must wear for everyone, even for his own family. This is his dilemma, his terrible irony. The man who in his books detests and derides falseness, pretense and hypocrisy must live the life of a hypocrite.
The tension, we see, is awful. On the surface he is jolly, jovial, gregarious, fun. A born storyteller, he loves to entertain those around him with tales, anecdotes, magic tricks, party games. But in the down moments, the private ones in the shadows away from the glare, we see the toll that fatigue and sadness have on him. His heart is breaking. He is dying without Nelly's love.
He plunges deeper into his feelings for her through the process of writing Great Expectations — the novel, decoded on one level, a long cry of love for her. In a quiet and tender moment alone with her he reads aloud from the handwritten pages of the novel. Hers are the first human ears to hear these words after his own, the famous words of Pip confessing his love to Estella:
“You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since — on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with...To the last hour of my life you...remain part of my character.”
Nelly listens in silence, tears streaming down her face. She knows the depth of his emotion for her is genuine. She understands he loves her. She wrestles thereafter with her own demons — the social demons of rightness and moral rectitude. We watch as she slowly gives in, tentatively, timidly, delicately, the emotion all the more profound for its delicacy.
We're left with the impression that theirs was a real love story. He is tender and doting on her, generous with everything. She in turn accepts him as he is, knowing that she can only ever have a part of him, that another equally large part must always be shared with a world that adores him too.
Nelly is wonderful. We care for her and her happiness. We see clearly why Dickens loves her and why he does everything he can to secure her love.
They remained together for the last 13 years of Dickens' existence. These were beautiful years for Dickens, the film implies, perhaps the happiest of his life. He was understood and genuinely accepted, faults and all, by a woman he sincerely loved. He must have felt that all the toil in life had been worth it. Books and fame were one thing. But what mattered most was love.
Nelly lives on. We see her in middle age. She has married a good man who is her junior by four or five years. They have a young son. They run a school for boys in Margate on the Kentish coast. We know her great secret but her husband and others do not. She was the lover of the great worldly man that everyone loved. The burden of this secret weighs heavily on her. She is moody, distant, sad. She takes long, lonely, vigorous walks along the wild shore to clear her mind and raise her spirits. She must remain strong for her husband, boy, and all the other boys in the school.
But one person, the local vicar, detects her suffering. He is Reverend Benham. He is kind and loving. He wants to help her. Time and again she refuses his help. But finally he calls her name aloud to her, the name of Ellen Ternan, a name she had buried long ago in an obscurity designed to protect herself and the reputation of Dickens. When she hears this, when she knows that he knows, she unburdens herself to him. This scene, moving and deeply touching, makes us love Nelly all the more for it.
Felicity Jones, the actress who plays Nelly, is extraordinary. Where does such beautiful complexity come from in one so young? If there is no answer to this, at least there is the evidence of it to witness on film. Felicity is magnificent. You will care for Nelly and her happiness just as much as Dickens did.