By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
It seems like every year a nondescript British period piece scores an Oscar nomination for Costume Design because Oscar likes them dumps like a truck, Victorian-style.
The Invisible Woman tells the somewhat true story of Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), a young actress who works with the great author Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) and finds herself falling for his genius as the much older and long-married man becomes smitten with her youth and intelligence. In Victorian England, however, they could never marry, and despite their struggles against these cultural mores, Ternan discovers she must decide whether their love is worth a life lived as the other woman.
I know, I know, that synopsis sounds like something nursing homes put on to pacify their elderly before midday naptime. However, I failed to mention that this film is the second directorial effort of Ralph Fiennes, who previously turned Shakespeare’s Coriolanus into something you certainly wouldn’t show at a nursing home.
Well, a non-awesome one, anyway
This is no Masterpiece Theater production. Abi Morgan’s script does a good job of presenting an intriguing, intricate structure, and Fiennes injects it with a liveliness and playfulness not often seen in a period piece. This might be the first Victorian-set movie where fun is a concept the characters are at all familiar with.
Fiennes and DP Rob Hardy shoot the film gorgeously, alternating between handheld, personal shooting and painterly static compositions, with some jaw-dropping tracking shots mixed in for good measure. I’m not sure there was a better shot sequence all year than the one at the racetrack. I immediately went back and watched it again.
Fine. Second best.
The other thing Morgan does well is create realistic characters. There are no villains here, just humans with their own worries and motivations. The actors all embody these characters perfectly. The always great Kristin Scott Thomas seems heartless, but possesses a tragic, life-taught practicality. Fiennes himself showcases an affable, magnetic Dickens, making his cult of personality and Nelly’s love eminently understandable. Deep down, though, he’s a selfish man-child, used to always getting his way and unaccustomed to sacrifice.
Today, we’d call it a mid-life crisis
Felicity Jones validates all that fuss from Like Crazy here, where she’s even better. She’s nothing short of spectacular, a woman struggling to balance her passion, her sense of right and wrong, and the boundaries of her society. Later, she is a woman consumed by nostalgia and the fact that she has nobody to share this past life with, nobody she can even trust to understand. This latter part sets up a bravura ending that is all Jones.
However, a last hearty raise of the glass to the MVP of this stellar cast, Joanna Scanlan. She’s the jilted Mrs. Dickens, a woman who, after all these years and children, knows her husband, and knows the passion has gone, but has made her peace with that. She’s earned the right to be secure, though, and her wounded humility when the affair comes to light is nothing short of heartbreaking.
The film definitely drags a bit in the middle, mostly because it’s hard to fully invest in Dickens and Ternan’s passion after all of Dickens’s petty cruelties and entitled behavior. Jones sells it incredibly well, but it’s hard to root for her happiness when Dickens deserves his so little.
The Invisible Woman is a well-shot, well-written, well-acted, altogether well-made period piece that gives me every confidence that Ralph Fiennes, director, will one day be the equal of Ralph Fiennes, actor. If he isn’t already.
Take a Drink: every time you see or hear the title of one of Dickens’s works
Take a Drink: for plays or dramatic readings
Take a Drink: for Dickens worship
Take a Drink: because it’s beachwalking time!
Do a Shot: for practical pimping