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The Invisible Woman

December 4, 2014

The Invisible Woman (2013)
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Actors: Felicity Jones, Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas

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Synopsis: In Victorian England, a relationship develops between celebrated novelist, Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes), and young actress, Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones).

Review: I’ve grown accustomed to approaching films directed by celebrated actors with a touch of scepticism. Especially when those actors have a theatrical pedigree, their films can be more than a touch plodding and literary – as if their inherent actor-centrism dictates a sole conception of the cinematic medium as a vehicle for filming narratives and sticking a camera in-front of actors, locations and sets.

Considering Ralph Fiennes has the aforementioned theatrical pedigree, and that his first two films have been a Shakespeare adaptation and a romantic drama centred on the personal life of one of Britain’s greatest novelists, Charles Dickens, you’d be forgiven for assuming Fiennes falls into this literary-director category. Surprisingly, while not exactly making the case that Fiennes is in any way a radical filmmaker, his two films actually reveal a healthy respect and interest in the special properties of the medium, and where his Coriolanus was a well-envisioned contemporary, 24 hour news ‘exposé’ of the Shakespeare play, so The Invisible Woman is a subtle, superior version of the hugely familiar period genre film.

Fiennes understands that The Invisible Woman is a work of ‘pitch’ and the gentle underscoring of the Victorian social tension which cloaks and ultimately undermines the central romantic relationship between Dickens and actress, Nelly Turnen. Fiennes makes good use of overlapping sound editing to suggest how a fragment of the present (a walk on the beach, opening up an old manuscript) can echo into a past remembrance, and he succeeds in imagining how viscerally oppressive the Victorian fetish for dark and airless interiors was versus a liberating dash of verdant green in a country graveyard or the pastel blue of a beautiful patch of English coastline.

Felicity Jones and Ralph Fiennes play the central relationship with a great deal of pathos, the only marginal misstep being how quickly Fiennes (as director) siphons on the story from Nellie initially scoffing at the prospect of becoming Dickens’ de facto kept ‘secret’ to falling ardently in love with him in the subsequent sequence. That minor quibble aside, Fiennes has crafted one of the more original heritage movies of recent years, and it’s ironic the movie it uncannily resembled to me in nailing that genre so intuitively is Onegin, directed by Fiennes’ own sister Martha Fiennes. (December 2014)

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