Movie Review - The Invisible Woman


January 16, 2014

I am in awe of THE INVISIBLE WOMAN. Directed by Ralph Fiennes and written by Abi Morgan based on Claire Tomalin's book, THE INVISIBLE WOMAN is the story of Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan, a much younger woman who becomes mistress to the much married Dickens, in a love story for the ages. An intensely enlivened multiple character study that speaks not only to character but character within the confines of socio-politcal mores of the day, while much of the film is quiet introspection, Fiennes offsets that with the ebullient lust for love and life that he himself infuses into his performance as Dickens, making those moments more telling, more impactful, drawing one deeper into history and the heart. The attention to detail is meticulously flawless, transporting one to the day with a full sensory immersion.

As Charles Dickens, Fiennes himself is perfection, embracing the emotional dichotomy of the man. Thoughtful, intense, mind whirling 1000 miles a minute and in the next instant, childlike and free in his thoughts and deed. Fiennes allows us to see the psychological complexities of Dickens not only in thought and deed, but on his face with tenderness, consternation, earnestness and sorrow. He is as mesmerizing and enthralling as Dickens the man as Dickens' own written works are to us as readers.

I had no idea that Felicity Jones could deliver the level of emotional intensity and gravitas tinged with a touch of delicacy that she brings us as Nelly Ternan. Not only is her face luminous with Fiennes camera choreography and Rob Hardy's cinematography capturing every nuance of wonder, conviction and internal struggle of "to love or not to love a married man", but her emotional tone is equally so.

The scenes of Nelly striding ever forth on her daily walks on the beach, dressed in black, have a ghostly yet ethereal tone to them and as the story unfolds, we realize that it is as if she has been living as a ghost all these years as well as being haunted by the ghosts of her past acts. Truly a fascinating dichotomy within the story structure designed by Fiennes.

Supporting performances are not only a delight, but some truly impactful and telling, particularly by Joanna Scanlan as she makes Catherine Dickens more than a buffoonish downtrodden housewife. Eliciting a depth and internal struggle, heartbreak and eventual acquiescence to her husband's wanton ways, Scanlan turns Catherine from what could have been a buffoonish pathetic character piece to a tragic and tortured wife caught between a rock and a hard place. Catherine Dickens was as much an "invisible woman" as Nelly Ternan.

As Dickens' best friend Wilkie Collins, Tom Hollander is a perfect foil to Fiennes' Dickens, serving as a grounding, practical balance to the story. Adding to that balance - and as a wonderful tool into the minds of propriety of the day is Michelle Fairley's Caroline Graves. The scenes between Jones and Fairley are brief but indelible and telling. Equally impressive is the interestingly cold facade that Kristen Scott Thomas gives to Nelly's mother Frances. Always worried about impression, status and her craft more than the truth and her daughter's heart or life. There is a great tone that Scott Thomas lends to the performance that made me believe Frances viewed everything and everyone as chattel.

As he showed us with "Coriolanus", Fiennes is an adept and gifted story-teller, employing every element of filmmaking to spin a web of fascinating and intrigue with the story and characters before us. Showcasing the decorum of the British upper crust of the day with carefully conscribed apportionment of costume, set design, even wallpaper, he immerses us into the various social stratas without wasting precious dialogue on setting a scene. We see it all before us. We see clothing being repurposed from season to season by the acting gypsies of Nelly's family, contrasted with the silver tea services and pristine velvet tufted settees of the monied upper crust or even in Dickens' own well apportioned monied home. He allows Maria Djurkovic's production design to act as its own character, thus freeing the stage for dialogue and insight into the true story of Dickens and Nelly. Fiennes lets the story and the characters breathe.

Fiennes paces the film so well and proves once again that the unseen is often more provocative than the seen, particularly effective during a climactic seduction scene. By the time Dickens and Nelly ultimately consummate their relationship, things have built to an unbridled boil thanks to artful lensing and editing. And again, there is extensive hand-held camera work that allows us to be one with the character, so much so that at times, everything is so in sync you feel as if you are in their shoes.

Rob Hardy's cinematography is a feast for the eyes and never moreso than in capturing the striking loneliness and emotional rage of Nelly in wide shots on the beach with the ocean serving as the visual rage of what she feels inside. Interiors are warm, rich, textured with candlelight and deeper - none dirt showing - color. And then there is the heart-stopping joy of sunny yellows and blue skies, a pastoral and bucolic almost dreamlike happiness for Dickens and Nelly in France. Breathtaking.

Interesting is the lack of judgment on the characters. Where some filmmakers and screenwriters would take this opportunity to inject a manipulative societal commentary, Fiennes and Morgan do not. They stay true to the period, true to the characters, true to the heart.

Directed by Ralph Fiennes

Written by Abi Morgan based on the book by Claire Tomalin

Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristen Scott Thomas, Tom Hollander, Joanna Scanlan


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