The Invisible Woman (2013) / Drama-Romance
MPAA Rated: R for some sexual content
Running Time: 87 min.
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Hollander, John Kavanagh, Michael Marcus, Joanna Scanlan, Perdita Weeks, Tom Burke, Amanda Hale
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Screenplay: Abi Morgan (based on the book by Claire Tomalin)
Review published January 25, 2014
Ralph Fiennes (Skyfall, Wrath of the Titans) takes a another crack at the director's chair, after Coriolanus in 2011, to adept results yet again. The Invisible Woman explores the love affair between author Charles Dickens and actress Ellen 'Nelly' Lawless Ternan (Jones, Like Crazy). It also delves into the trials and taboos of relationships in its era and location, as the gossipy news of the day can make or break lives in flux, in a time when two people living together without marriage is considered an impudent breaking of social norms, even more so when one of them is married, as well as one of the most famous literary figures in the world.
Told mostly in flashback from a grown, married woman still holding on to her secret past many years later, Felicity Jones gets the most screen time as Nelly, an eighteen-year-old woman who grew up in a family of actors, while also reading and thoroughly loving the writing of Charles Dickens, regarding his poetic expressions as a means by which she viewed many things in life. She gets to meet the man himself one day, and even becomes an actress in one of the plays he is directing and starring in.
The two stay as friends, hiding their mutual attraction from one another, mostly because middle-aged Dickens is still in a long-term, albeit loveless, marriage. Dickens' hand is also stayed by the fact that his reputation and fame is on the line, and any sort of extramarital affair would be the gossip of the land, and potentially ruin his career. If they are ever to consummate their marriage, Nelly would never be able to be seen as his mistress, and their love affair would have to be completely invisible to the eyes of all others.
The Invisible Woman is shot by cinematographer Rob Hardy (Boy A, Blitz), who imbues each frame using natural light sources, somewhat in the manner of that other recent Ralph Fiennes vehicle, Great Expectations, had done, only with more emphasis on daylight. With its use of mirrors and reflection, as well as his penchant for capturing his subjects from rear profile, it is a unique, but beautifully photographed film. The sets and costumes are also very beautiful and detailed, and though Fiennes is working with a very limited budget, only a scene involving the derailing of a train feels beyond the monetary means of the production.
What elevates the material from sappy soaper into something much more profound is in large part due to the performances, particularly by the two captivating lead players. Gregarious Dickens comes off as conflicted about his feelings, unable to deal with a loveless marriage for many years because divorce would prove to be most prohibitive to his "rock star" image and lifestyle, especially if it is shown that he has hooked up with what is essentially a much younger groupie. While we can recognize his feelings, we don't often root for his success. His actions, especially against the wife he no longer has any form of real relationship with, come off as heartless, humiliating, and beyond comprehension in the extent of its lack of respect or decency. Fiennes paints him as a flawed man who feeds off of the love of his public, and one only wonders if the fact that Nelly is his most adoring of fans fuels his own desire for her, perhaps as much as the fact that he is the Charles Dickens makes her more desirous of him.
By contrast, Nelly is racked with her own guilt, with the feeling that she is living in a very large shadow of a much more powerful and respected man, and caught with a family existence that pushes her in his direction because she's a bit of an odd duck, plus an actress without much talent other than to charm Dickens, that might have a hard time finding success and love in life otherwise. She hates being a secret or having the inability to love her man without hindrance, but soon comes to realize that to have him she must make much sacrifice to herself as a woman, or just a person of any importance to anyone else but Dickens. Nelly's conflict leads to the intensity of her feelings, wanting so much to be able to escape her passions and move on, but also finds the notion of being desired by Dickens too enticing to not explore further, especially as her presence begins to shape the literary work she so much adores.
No less important is the direction by Fiennes, who delicately presents all of the story elements in very subtle, understated fashion throughout. The burgeoning love that grows between Dickens and Nelly is painted with a longing and anguish of two people that seem to want desperately to either be together in every way, or to wish they felt completely differently, and yet they are both stuck in a sort of limbo because of their individual lots in life. These are two reserved people in a reserved era, who manage to keep secrets in a time when concealment of any form of desire is not only expected, it is the rule by which the society lives by.
The Invisible Woman is beautifully acted in a natural fashion that shows that period pieces needn't feel like stuffy, boring affairs. Fiennes explores the romance with a delicate flair that eschews ostentatiousness, which may make things occasionally confusing for audiences not attuned to its understated, very nuanced story elements, especially as the film doesn't follow a traditional narrative arc (few real-life love affairs ever do). It's at times an expressionist work, with emotional content buried underneath personal and societal repression, but Fiennes, as director, infuses this angst-y tale of love-in-secret with an enthusiasm and passion that often mesmerizes.
©2014 Vince Leo