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Holiday Movie Review of the Week: The Invisible Woman

Holiday Movie Review of the Week: The Invisible Woman
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With a professorial beard and puffs of curled hair, Ralph Fiennes bears a winning resemblance to Charles Dickens, the prolific writer whom he plays in his second directorial outing “The Invisible Woman”. More than just outwardly, Fiennes breathes life into the larger than life character who in 1857 was already a celebrity due to his serialized novels, plays and book readings.

Fiennes plays Dickens with a wicked twinkle in his eye, a gregarious, exuberant soul who lived for the limelight. When we meet him here he has not yet written “A Tale of Two Cities” nor “Great Expectations”, but has a vast following due to the popularity of “Bleak House”, “David Copperfield” et al.  While putting on a performance of the play, “The Frozen Deep”, he meets young Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), an 18 year old actress (of dubious talent) who bewitches him with her youth, innocence and guile. Never mind that Dickens is 45, married and the father of ten children.

Under the watchful eyes of her widowed mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), Nelly and Dickens embark on a restrained, but simmering flirtation that eventually turns physical despite Nelly’s reservations. Dickens’ best friend and protege, Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander) lives in blissful sin with his mistress and Nelly is appalled. But she cannot resist the charm of Dickens and their affair is thought to have lasted until his death in 1870.

Working from an economical script by Abi Morgan (“Shame”, “The Iron Lady”), adapted from the 1991 biography by Claire Tomalin, Fiennes frames his romance with bookends that show Nelly after Dickens’ death, married to a husband who knows nothing of his wife’s past. In fact, Nelly has even lied about her age in order to fudge the years she devoted to the affair.  Fiennes films Nelly striding purposefully across the vast sands of the England coastline, as if trying to forget her past in the sea air. Nelly is putting on a production of one of Dickens’ lesser known plays “No Thoroughfare” at her husband’s school and the memories are flooding back, crowding her mind and causing her to reflect on the past.

Flashbacks are handled well and the “present day” interludes are not too intrusive on the main thrust of the story which remains Dickens’ outsize persona and expansive bonhomie. Fiennes adds much poignancy to the script by ceding time to ponder the effect of the love affair on Dickens’ wife Catherine. Played with reserve and fortitude by Joanna Scanlan, Catherine is the other invisible woman, too worn out by child-bearing and life to be seen on Dickens’ arm. It’s a telling insight into the affairs of celebrities, even now as then, who forsake loyal, age-appropriate spouses for the draw of youthful beauty.

In fact, Dickens was as famous as a movie star.  While Fiennes provides the flash, Jones does an equally commendable job with Nelly, who is often reduced to communicating via whispers and secretive glances. The fact that Nelly is still somewhat invisible and largely unknown at the end of this drama is not the fault of Fiennes since much of Dickens and Nelly’s relationship remains speculative. As a portrait of the flesh and blood writer, this is rich storytelling. With the dusky, candle-lit cinematography of Rob Hardy, “The Invisible Woman” will be catnip for the Downton Abbey crowd who like a little literary panache with their tabloid fodder.


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