Invisible Woman, The (2013)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/24/14 23:11:53

"Should be seen."
5 stars (Awesome)

It's been far too long since I've read far too little Dickens, but that actually matters not a whit in appreciating "The Invisible Woman"; though knowing some details of his work certainly will help, this story of him and his young lover is quite fascinating on its own.

We first meet Ellen Wharton-Robinson (Felicity Jones) as a popular teacher in her husband George's school, and the children are putting on a play written by Charles Dickens. It is mentioned that she met the man when she was younger, with some saying she served as the inspiration for Little Nell. The latter part is not so; Ellen "Nelly" Ternan met Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) when the Ternan family of actresses - including Nelly's two sisters and mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) - took parts in a play he was presenting in Manchester. The author took note of the pretty 18-year-old girl who had read everything he had written, and an affair was soon in the offing.

It seems a bit of an odd choice to start with Nelly's life after Dickens and frequently return to it; for all that there's a story there about her secret history being a constant source of tension even without a nosy vicar (John Kavanagh) wanting to discuss the great writer, it does feel a bit of a distraction, as George never gets the full exploration Dickens does and the conclusion of the framing story doesn't have the weight of its flashbacks. Still, it serves a purpose in allowing director Ralph Fiennes and the writers (Claire Tomalin for the original book, Abi Morgan for the screenplay) to occasionally jump forward in the story of Charles Dickens's & Nelly Ternan's affair and finish the movie with the sort of epilogue that fits the plays Dickens wrote perfectly but which is not necessarily natural in a film.

In addition to directing, Fiennes plays Dickens, and it's a performance that seems to have been quite unfairly overlooked this awards season. The energetic, cheerful Dickens we meet at the beginning is an amusing contrast to the very serious impression many have of him based upon his frequent subject matter, and since Fiennes can also come across as very serious even in films meant to be light-hearted, it's also a neat bit of playing against type. Fiennes and company have something a little more complicated in mind for the character, though, and he does a truly impressive job of bringing out how cruel and self-deluding Dickens can be in trying to have what he wants while still protecting his reputation but still charming both the audience and the people on screen (for a time, anyway). There's an especially fantastic sequence in the middle where the man whose name would become synonymous with portraying the lives of the lower classes seems flabbergasted when encountering them, showing just how out-of-touch this brilliant man can be, and another where the audience can watch him use his literary genius in a way that's downright predatory.

Felicity Jones is the other half of the latter scene, and she's amazing as well; it actually starts with Nelly somewhat skeptical and looking almost horrified as Dickens bolsters her admiration and love for him by appealing to her intelligence. There are some early scenes where Jones initially seems to be getting by on her considerable beauty, as if there's no skill in portraying innocence or fascination, but there's little call for that later on. She gets more impressive the more self-aware Nelly becomes, and she manages the neat trick of showing how appalled she is at the various sins being committed without losing the audience at the inherent hypocrisy. We see her intelligence and how her heart boxes her in.

The rest of the cast impressive, too, with Joanna Scanlan sticking out as Catherine Dickens because she is physically a lump of maternality amid all the trim, artistic men and women around her. Scanlan doesn't play her as slow or self-pitying, though it's easy to see both her disconnect with her husband and her hurt at how he rejects her (only made more interesting by not seeming laced with jealousy or envy). Kristin Scott Thomas's role is relatively small, but interesting for how she plays Mrs. Ternan as very pragmatic with regards to Nelly's future. A number of others excel in smaller roles, from Amanda Hale and Perdita Weeks as Nelly's sisters to Tom Hollander as Dickens's best friends.

This is Fiennes's second film as director, and while the long list of fine performances is testament to how well he works with actors, there are a couple of moments where he's far from subtle, including a scene where Dickens is actually building a wall between himself and his wife (and some where I'm not quite sure what he's getting at). He balances his characters and subplots well, though, and has a great team handling the look and sound of the picture. There's even spots for personal whimsy, like the period-style credits and the music playing over them.

Given those bits of detail, I wouldn't be shocked at all if "The Invisible Woman" was even better for those with more than a passing familiarity with Dickens's life and work. For the rest of us, it's still an impressive, sharply made picture.

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