By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Charles Dickens’ secret mistress wasn’t much of a secret.
As invisible women go, and as The Invisible Woman indicates, she was, when you come right down to it, very visible indeed.
Ralph Fiennes, who also directed (yep, Harry Potter fans, Lord Voldemort is once again pulling strings!) plays acclaimed Victorian author Dickens, who, at age 45 in the late 1850s, falls head over heels for a very young actress, one Nelly Ternan, played by Felicity Jones, whom he meets while casting a play that he is producing.
He has a wife and ten children, while she is a starstruck 18-year-old, one of three actress sisters being managed by their mother, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, who realizes that the brilliant author is interested in the youngest and least talented of her three stage-trained daughters and would love to see their incipient love affair nipped in the bud.
Nelly is an independent-minded young woman, and she and the celebrity writer proceed to carry on a very public affair, ignoring the local whispering and newspaper gossip.
Dickens’ wife, Catherine, played by Joanna Scanlan, is humiliated, especially when Dickens, who hardly even communicates with her, sends her on errands to his mistress.
Fiennes’ second directorial project (he also brought a contemporized adaptation of Shakespeare’s Corialanus to the screen in 2011 with somewhat less success) remains on the stiff and passive side, as if he wants badly to avoid any hint of melodrama.
And yet that’s what we have: the film could use a bit more in the visible emotional fireworks department.
Abi Morgan’s script, adapted from the 1991 Claire Tomalin speculative book, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, starts off years after the affair, over a decade after Dickens died, as Nelly, a fortysomething grade school drama teacher staging a play by Dickens, recalls, reminisces, and regrets.
Fiennes plays Dickens as a self-absorbed, arrogant artist of great ability and talent, an admirable Renaissance man, but one committed fully only to his art and career, not to any loved ones.
He is further characterized as someone entirely capable of acts of great insensitivity and extreme cruelty, best conveyed in an excruciating scene in which Dickens forces his wife to deliver a gift to his mistress that Mrs. Dickens has mistakenly thought was for her.
Jones, who came to moviegoers’ attention in Like Crazy, brings understated nuance to her Nelly, who starts as Dickens’ “other woman” and becomes the love of his life, his passion, and his muse.
But given Victorian restraints, she is destined to remain the character described by the title.
The period piece’s recent and only Oscar nomination for best costume design probably indicates the film’s strength and perhaps its weakness as well: although it’s undeniably handsome, the impression it leaves is that of a costume drama.
So we’ll have great expectations of 2½ stars out of 4 for The Invisible Woman.
Wish you were more lively, you little dickens, but we’ll take the subdued approach any day.