Directed by: Ralph Fiennes.
Written by: Abi Morgan based on the book by Claire Tomalin.
Starring: Ralph Fiennes (Charles Dickens), Felicity Jones (Nelly Ternan), Michelle Fairley (Caroline Graves), Kristin Scott Thomas (Catherine Ternan), Tom Hollander (Wilkie Collins), Joanna Scanlan (Catherine Dickens), Perdita Weeks (Maria Ternan), Michael Marcus (Charley Dickens), John Kavanagh (Reverend Benham), Tom Burke (George Wharton Robinson)
Ralph Fiennes debut film, Coriolanus (2011) is one of the best recent Shakespeare adaptations – taking one of the bard’s least known plays, and giving it modern resonance, is an undertaking that many experienced directors could not have pulled off – and the fact that it was Fiennes debut film makes the achievement all the more impressive. That is one of the reasons why his follow-up film The Invisible Woman is such a disappointment. It stars Fiennes as Charles Dickens, and focuses on the long running affair he had with a much younger woman, Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones) late in life. It is handsomely mounted production – excellent art direction and costume design – but that is the best thing you can say about the movie. For a film about an illicit affair, the film is strangely lacking in passion.
When the movie opens, Dickens is already a famous, best-selling author. He is a larger than life personality, who acts impulsively and often seems to little more than an overgrown child. At the beginning of the movie, he is staging a play – in which he will be the star of the show – and needs an actress to fill in at the last minute. He reaches out to a family friend – Catherine Ternan (Kristen Scott Thomas), who brings along her beautiful daughters. Dickens is instantly smitten with the youngest, Nelly (Jones), barely 18 – and it’s not because of her acting talent – because she doesn’t have any. His very slow courtship of her basically involves coming with increasingly illogical reasons to see the family. Nelly is smitten with Dickens as well – but it’s really more in awe of his talent (he loves his books) and is so sweetly naïve, she doesn’t realize that she has no acting talent, or that a married man may want to be with her. Her mother is not naïve – and knows what is going on – but thinks this may be good for her daughter.
The material is here to make a great movie. The problem here seems to be that Fiennes wants to have it both ways. He doesn’t want the film to be too harsh, so he seemingly wants to make excuses for Dickens behavior – even as he casually, cruelly tosses aside his wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlon). Scanlon’s small role is the films best performance – the woman who seemingly no one takes into consideration as her husband strays from her. In just a few short scenes, Scanlon creates a heartbreaking performance. Had the movie had more scenes like the ones with Scanlon – which showed Dickens as cruel, it would have been a tougher, more complex film. However, while Fiennes doesn’t seem to want to be this harsh, he also doesn’t go the other way – and make the film a dreamy romance either. Had the movie portrayed the affair between Dickens and Nelly as something neither could resist because they were so in love with each, it could have been a wonderfully romantic film. Yet, Fiennes isn’t able to pull this off either. There is a distinct lack of chemistry between Fiennes and Jones. They seem to be going through the motions of two people in love without every really feeling it. Because Fiennes tries to go between these two extremes – the harsh, cruel film, and the dreamily romantic one – he fails to make either one, or anything that is able to hold our interest, or express a true point of view.
So what we’re left with is isolated moments that work – like Scanlon’s performance – or admiring the costumes and art direction, which are quite good. There are moments when they are not together when both Fiennes and Jones are quite good as well – but while they may convince as individuals, they never really come together as a couple. And because of that, The Invisible Woman is a movie with a giant hole at its core.
Note: This review is based on my viewing of the film at TIFF in September 2013. As far as I know, nothing has changed between the film I saw and the one being released this week in limited release to qualify for Oscars.