“The Invisible Woman”, based on the book by Claire Tomalin, tells of the secret romance between author Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) and a young actress named Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones) that began just before Dickens started writing “Great Expectations”. A fairly listless period piece that is nice to look at but offers surprising little in the way of insight or emotion, Fiennes’ sophomore directorial effort is so reserved that we nearly forget that the two leads might actually have an interest in one another, not to mention a burning desire to be together.
Told through the melancholy reflection of a now married Nelly some years down the road, the film follows their clandestine relationship from their first encounter at a play rehearsal through Dickens’ separation from his wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), and eventually into a new life together, all the while shielding the affair from the public eye. One would think that the story would be bursting at the seams to demonstrate how madly in love they are (it certainly goes out of its way to show how much they have in common, despite their 27-year age gap), but even in private, the couple are about as heated as a busted Sterno. Fiennes and screenwriter Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady”) seem more interested in the general history than in the love story, and the film seems a bit indecisive about which one it wants to be. With such a fine cast, there’s no reason it couldn’t have done a better job at both.
That said, the film has its attributes. In addition to being gorgeous-looking, some of the individual performances are what keep “The Invisible Woman” relatively involving. Joanna Scanlan has a heartbreaking moment after relinquishing her husband’s heart to Nelly, whose mom (Kristin Scott Thomas) quietly approves of the affair. Fiennes plays Dickens as a raging intellectual with the spirit of a young boy; the character is most interesting and vibrant when he’s not distracted by Nelly, and Felicity Jones is perfectly engaging as the reticent young woman, though the role isn’t necessarily a good representation of her range. When the two are together, however, it’s as if they’re draining the lifeblood out of one another – if that were the case in reality, it might be difficult to explain how the relationship lasted over a decade.
Fiennes is a terrific director – evidence of that can be seen in 2011’s “Coriolanus”, which I found to be rather brilliant – but “The Invisible Woman” never quite finds a suitable pace, and eventually feels like it’s just going through the motions. Though the film touches on it, I found myself wanting to know more about what inspired “Great Expectations”, as the central story became less engrossing. Perhaps it’s because they were so practiced at making Nelly invisible to the public that their chemistry is all but invisible, too.
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