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Though the title sounds like science fiction, Ralph Fiennes’ elegantly melancholy “The Invisible Woman” looks not to the future, but to the past. We begin in1883, with a young woman, smartly swathed in dark Victorian ruffles and folds, taking a seaside walk. Her steps in the sand are purposeful and just a bit frantic, as if stomping out something unseen. Soon we flash back — how many years, we don’t know — and learn that she is Ellen “Nelly” Ternan (Felicity Jones), an actress from a theatrical family who was 18 when she met Charles Dickens (Fiennes) at the height of his fame. Not long afterward, she became his mistress.

Based on a biography by Claire Tomalin, “The Invisible Woman” shows, through burnished light and rustling skirts, a shadowy relationship from a century and a half ago. Nelly, by the 1880s (Dickens died in 1870), had a new life, with a respectable husband and young son who knew nothing of her past. The movie flits back and forth between the two time periods, showing us how Nelly is haunted by her life with Dickens — and how, when it was happening, it wasn’t a pretty love story.

“You men, you see a freedom which I do not see,” says young Nelly, eyes blazing, realizing her options as either a famous man’s secret love, or a woman living with her sisters and mother and struggling for comfort. Later, she smoothly erases her past, but it walks with her by the sea.

Fiennes, in his second outing as a film director (after “Coriolanus”), seems born to play Dickens, depicting both the man’s robust, irresistible enthusiasm — a lover of the theater, Dickens always seems to be performing — and his quieter, darker side. So renowned that strangers on the street want to touch him, Dickens was married when he met Nelly but had lost interest in his wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), who had grown heavy and weary after numerous pregnancies. On Dickens’ first encounter with Nelly — he had cast her in one of his homegrown theatrical productions — he ebulliently and charmingly introduces his many children but glosses over Catherine. Sitting quietly in a chair, she is this story’s other invisible woman.

Not much is said in this film; it’s a tale told through regretful looks, kisses in dark rooms, vivid images of letters burning. Sometimes it’s almost too subtle: Nelly, by the end, is still something of a cipher. But it’s wonderfully cast — Kristin Scott Thomas makes Nelly’s knowing mother into someone who merits her own movie — and beautifully designed; a quiet pleasure.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or