In an almost whisper-quiet manner, renowned stage and screen actor Ralph Fiennes is becoming a very competent film director. With two features officially under his distinguished belt, some fans might make the mistake of finding his sophomore effort slight and inferior compared to his Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” debut. That would be unfortunate, because despite the soap-opera aspects of a period piece that centers on the adulterous love affair that an established Charles Dickens had with a young, mediocre actress in the 1850’s, the tale is richly told and beautifully lensed, with a pair of wonderful lead performances from Felicity Jones as “the invisible woman” and Mr. Fiennes himself as the great novelist. From intensely moody and gorgeously shot beach walks, to a modestly and tastefully handled train wreck(Mr. Dickens was a survivor of the Staplehurst rail crash of 1865), “The Invisible Woman” is handled in a much more mature and dignified way than just a tawdry gossip piece. It’s emotionally affecting, plus it doesn’t overstay its welcome(about 105 minutes sans credits).
The story is based on Claire Tomalin’s 1991 book The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens. A 45 year-old Mr. Dickens(an excellent Mr. Fiennes)is a well established and very famous author as the 1850’s are coming to a close. He is wealthy and has sired multiple children during his two-decade old marriage, but the passion has gone out of the relationship with wife, Catherine(a fine Joanna Scanlan). Heavily involved in the theatre, along with friend and fellow author, Wilkie Collins(a solid Tom Hollander), Dickens makes the acquaintance of a teenage performer named Nelly Ternan. And although more comparable in age to Nelly’s mother, Catherine(the luminous and always welcome, Kristin Scott Thomas), Charles and Nelly soon begin a scandalous affair. But when the expose of the union begins to damage his family life as well as sully the reputation of Ms. Ternan, Dickens does everything in his power to not only deny the tryst, but to keep the partnership going by continually keeping Nelly at arm’s length, and out of the prying public view. But can the young girl remain happy existing as a kept, but “invisible”, woman.
There are wonderful, Oscar-nominated costumes(by Michael O’Connor)here, and a memorable Philip Glass-like score from Ilan Eshkeri. Nicolas Gaster’s astute edit keeps the pace proper, and if Rob Hardy’s cinematography occasionally appears too dark during interior scenes, the gorgeous sand and ocean vistas of the exterior shots more than makes up for the dimness. I saw Mr. Fiennes in his Tony-winning role on Broadway as Hamlet in 1995, and I’ve been consistently amazed with him as a performer since even before that—whether on-screen or off. His Dickens is marvelous in that Fiennes helps you understand the writer’s inner turmoil, without ever excusing him for the pain he brings to others’ lives via his dangerous choices. And Ms. Jones is extremely good as Nelly Ternan, in a quieter, tight-rope walk of a role. Forced to speak often with only a look or a gesture, the character’s difficult position is always worn broadly in her expression, but with subtlety in her reactions. If it’s not quite as exciting as Fiennes’ “Coriolanus”, the film still manages to show a higher degree of polish—especially during that modest, but harrowing train disaster. Ralph is getting the hang of the director’s chair, methinks. Is there anything he can’t do? Grade: B+