In 2011 Ralph Fiennes made his brutally impressive directorial debut with Coriolanus, a raw back-to-basics modern retelling of the lesser known Shakespeare play. Fiennes second feature is a brave departure from this, a perfect opposite to Coriolanus. Essentially a love story, The Invisible Woman follows the relationship between Charles Dickens (Fiennes) and his young lover Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), the pair had a controversial extra-marital affair that surpassed Dickens own marriage and continued on until his death at the age of 58.
Fiennes pays close attention to the roles of men and woman at the time in this, his carefully crafted essay on Victorian relationships and –more subtly- fame. The doomed role of the lover in a male writer’s life is perhaps the most heart wrenching aspect of the piece, carefully relayed in the fantastic performances of Jones and Joanna Scanlan- who personifies Victorian reserve in her often tragic portrayal of Dickens’ wife. As Nelly and Dickens draw closer and closer to the inevitable affair, the world around them sniffs scandal and forces them to take a more covert approach. Even if Dickens’ London is a man’s world, it is no place for divorce.
Fiennes is as magnetic as ever as the larger-than-life author at the height of his career. Tom Hollander deserves note for an energetic performance as the mischievous Wilkie Collins, the only grievance regarding Hollander would be his lack of screen time. The wonderful rapport between Fiennes and Hollander is electric and constitutes a large portion of the truly enjoyable scenes of the film. Bring on ‘Wilkie and Dickens: the college years’.
Here I have perhaps touched on the problem with Fiennes’ second feature: it is a period drama, and thus flirts consistently with surrendering to a certain brand of tedium. Aside from fantastic performance and Maria Djurkovic’s impressive production design-which ensures Fiennes’ Victorian London is realistic and aesthetically gorgeous, the film does lack that fine daring edge that might maintain the viewer’s absolute attention. Technicality, Fiennes is a good director, but merely good. His keen ear for diegetic sound helps pull the viewer into the world, but an as-of-yet unfound style leaves some of his frames wandering, left to be gathered by his actors. This leads us to another issue: particular scenes of magnetic performance, those between lovers and family, break the softly-spoken jib to deliver moments that surpass a large portion of the film.
The Invisible Woman is unfortunately a meandering film, beautifully realised but lacking in truly riveting subject matter. There are moments of startling clarity and splendour, a stand out performance from Felicity Jones, but by the end a point could be raised that there’s more beauty than brawn at work here.
Dir: Ralph Fiennes
Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Tom Hollander, Kristin Scott Thomas, Joanna Scanlan