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Wednesday, December 25, 2013


Left to right: Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan and Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens
Photo by David Appleby, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

2013, 111 minutes
Rated R for some sexual content

Review by Joshua Handler

Ralph Fiennes' The Invisible Woman is one of the most underrated films of the year.  Fiennes directed this film from a screenplay by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, Shame) and also stars in the film along with Felicity Jones (Like Crazy), Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient), and Joanna Scanlan (In the Loop).  The film tells the story of British author Charles Dickens' affair with a much younger woman, Nelly, and its effects on Dickens, his family, and Nelly herself.

Fiennes directs this film with ease and his lead performance is nothing less than magnetic.  Most other actors would have played Dickens as a crusty old historical figure.  However, Fiennes brings an energy to the role that makes his performance and the character come to life in a way similar to that of Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln.  Dickens is a man in this film, not a legend or icon.  Felicity Jones matches Fiennes with an emotional performance that makes their scenes together entrancing.  However, Joanna Scanlan is the standout as Dickens' wife, Catherine, a repressed, unhappy woman.  In one scene near the middle of the film, Catherine must deliver a gift to Nelly from her husband that was accidentally given to her instead of Nelly.  In this scene, all of the heartbreak and humiliation felt by Catherine on account of Charles and Nelly's affair is laid bare.  Up until this point, Catherine was a background character, seemingly lacking in personality and love for her husband.  However, during this scene, we come to understand her and connect to her, all because of Scanlan's penetrating performance.

The film's first 45 minutes or so are incredibly slow - almost too slow.  However, what follows the first bit is so gripping that the opening 45 minutes are immediately forgiven.  The film becomes a fascinating exploration of celebrity in the 19th Century as Dickens tries to hide his affair with Nelly so that his public image isn't ruined.  Just as celebrities in the present day try hard to cover up affairs, Dickens tries to cover his in The Invisible Woman.  By exploring these themes, Abi Morgan makes the film more relevant and more relatable.  This film is much more than simply a 19th Century-set period drama.

Finally, the cinematography by Rob Hardy (Shadow Dancer, Boy A) is richly beautiful.  In one particularly memorable shot, the camera is focused in on Nelly looking at something in the distance, and we wonder what it is.  Slowly, the camera zooms out and a horse races across the screen - she is watching a horse race.  The entire race scene is conveyed in a single shot that builds curiosity before its ultimate reveal.  Shots like this and others throughout the film give the film a fresh, exciting feel.  With the technical mastery on display and Fiennes deft directorial hand, The Invisible Woman never feels stuffy and cold, but rather alive and full of heart.

Overall, The Invisible Woman is a film that deserves attention.  Fiennes' direction and performance, Scanlan's powerhouse, and the thematic richness of this film should keep audiences invested enough to look forward to whatever Fiennes decides to direct next.  If his next film shows as much control as this film does, Fiennes will not only be recognized as one of the finest actors working today, but also one of the finest directors.


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