The celebrated author Charles Dickens was 45 and married when he met Ellen "Nelly" Ternan, an 18-year-old aspiring actress. There must have been something powerful between them, because their secret affair, chronicled in "The Invisible Woman," lasted the rest of his life.

Ralph Fiennes directs himself as Dickens and Felicity Jones as Nelly in "The Invisible Woman," a film whose sumptuous cinematography (by Rob Hardy) and gorgeous costumes help cover up an emotional hole at its center. The attraction between an older celebrity and a younger beauty never needs much explaining, but "The Invisible Woman," written by Abi Morgan from Claire Tomalin's 1990 book, doesn't tell us what kept these two together.

"She has something," Dickens muses upon first seeing Nelly, and we can see it, too. Jones, a 30-year-old British actress with a junior-high smile and luminous hazel eyes, makes an irresistible Nelly, and the camera fairly drinks her in. By contrast, Dickens' wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), is lumpen and somewhat humorless after bearing his 10 children. "She comprehends nothing," Dickens says, a Victorian way of complaining that his wife doesn't understand him.

"The Invisible Woman" paints a deeply unflattering portrait of the author, and therein lies a problem. Aside from his prodigious talent, this Dickens has few merits as a human being. He seems capable mostly of cruelty -- he leaves Catherine by announcing it in the newspaper -- and he predatorily grooms Nelly for sexual transgression by introducing her to Wilkie Collins (a wonderful Tom Hollander), who openly lives with a woman outside wedlock. Chillingly, Dickens seems aided by Nelly's financially struggling mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). Her warning, "I cannot risk Nelly's reputation," sounds suspiciously like a blessing.

The way young Nelly fondles Dickens' manuscripts suggests that she has confused the art with the artist, but even after his death she cherishes his memory. That memory, though, seems mostly unpleasant. Why did this bright, vivacious, intellectually engaged girl willingly lock herself up in a wealthy man's seraglio? Put bluntly, what did she get out of it? In the end, "The Invisible Woman" remains a mystery.

PLOT The story of Charles Dickens' years-long affair with a young actress.

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RATING R (brief sexuality, adult themes)

CAST Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas


BOTTOM LINE Sumptuous cinematography and delicate direction from Fiennes, though his unsympathetic Dickens tends to put a chill on this romantic drama.