Saturday, February 15, 2014

A Secret and Moving Romance: Ralph Fiennes' The Invisible Woman

Ralph Fiennes & Felicity Jones in The Invisible Woman
One of the things that has been most lacking this past year in the movies has been great scripts. The screenplays for many of the worthwhile movies of 2013, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Philomena, all suffered from underdeveloped characters, other than the lead ones, pedestrian plotting or simply thin story lines. That makes it all the more puzzling that such a beautifully written and nuanced film like The Invisible Woman has fallen through the cracks, receiving only a limited release in the U.S. It’s doubly disappointing that its lead actors, Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones, were also overlooked for the Oscars. All this means that the movie, despite some success in Toronto, in limited screenings at a second run house where it’s in its third week, is well worth your time. It’s recently opened in its native U.K. where hopefully, it will shine brighter.

Based on Claire Tomalin’s popular biographical book The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, it tells the riveting and rich story of a late in life affair that popular author Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes), then aged 45, had with 18 year old Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), a would be actress whom he met when she replaced her sister in a play he was producing. Slowly falling in love with her – something evident to her loving mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and two sisters, Dickens has to navigate a censorious Victorian society, which would never countenance the relationship and deal with his wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), mother of his eight children, with whom he has long fallen out of love. The film begins more than ten years after Dickens has passed on in 1870, where a troubled Nelly, prone to striding along the beach near where she lives as if possessed of demons, is causing a near spectacle of herself and forcing her loving and decent husband George (Tom Burke) to despair of their relationship. Slowly, Fiennes, working from Abi Morgan’s delicate screenplay, peels back the layers of Nelly’s disturbances and brings us into Dickens' world, one just as complex, emotional and dark as any of his great and lasting novels. Desperately hoping to make a go of it with the beautiful and strong willed Nelly, Dickens finds that even as the author of some of his country’s most acclaimed works, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit, and a cultural superstar of his time – much in demand for lectures, reading and autograph sessions – he cannot, dare not, declare his love for Nelly publicly, much less live with her as he so desires.

One of the great beauties of The Invisible Woman and its structure is its subtlety and slow laying out of the romantic tale. It takes nearly half the movie for anything to actually happen between Dickens and Ternan and since they had relatively little time together (13 years or so), their love affair is over almost before it begins. Fiennes directs all this with a keen eye for details, faces and expressions and ensures that his England -and Dickens’ – looks lived in and not constructed as if out of a deliberate set design. (Mind you, most British period movies seem realistic, but The Invisible Woman strikes me as one of the most tactile ones ever brought to screen.) He also paces his film perfectly, getting at the sensory mood of the time – from crowded street scenes to quiet parlour room drama – without ever descending into melodrama or sentiment, risks inherent in this type of material. When Nelly at the racetrack looks out at the horses we don't hear anything at first or know where she is but when they come around the bend and the sounds of their hooves rises to a crescendo, the scene functions as a perfect metaphor for Nelly's burgeoning passions. (Considering it’s only Fiennes’ second directorial effort, after his adaptation of Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus, his is a quite impressive achievement. Ironically, before taking on The Invisible Woman, Fiennes admitted to little familiarity with Dickens’ written output but had seen many of the Dickens’ film and television adaptations.)

Fiennes as Dickens

Fiennes, of course, is also a great actor, with memorable credits ranging from Nazi Amon Goeth (Schindler’s List) to Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter films, as well as stellar work in The End of the Affair, The Constant Gardener, Spider, The Good Thief, Quiz Show and Sunshine, among many others. (He also starred as the convict Magwitch in Mike Newell’s 2012 adaptation of Dickens’ Great Expectations, a film I don’t recall playing in my neck of the woods.) Even with that superb track record – he has few duds in his resume – Fiennes’ Dickens still stands out, Kindly, funny, temperamental and profoundly decent, the Charles Dickens of The Invisible Woman is also a supremely tragic figure, one who might have, if anyone could, bucked the puritanical tides of his time and gotten away with it or at last received grudging acceptance of his affair. But the film, gently, suggests that if it came to choosing between his career and its attendant (and stupendous) success and forsaking all that for a life with Nelly, he lacked the courage to take a public stand for love. Similarly, though he has the decency to separate form Catherine before he begins anything with Nelly, he does not handle that decision well and, further, cruelly hurts his wife by sending her to Nelly with a present of his for her, after it is mistakenly sent to his homestead.

None of this might have worked if Catherine has been cast as a shrew or villain. She’s not, which is a mark of Abi Morgan’s generous screenplay. (I can scarcely believe that her credits include the ridiculous and vile Steve McQueen film Shame.) Catherine, despite her plain appearance and near obese weight is a fine, well meaning woman who still cares for her husband to some degree and has supported him throughout his career, even as she has of late, withdrawn from him in public. (She doesn’t seem to be much enamoured of books or theatre.) But if theirs is a loveless – and sexless – marriage, she still doesn’t deserve what she is put through by Dickens. Nor can he help falling in love with Nelly, a conundrum which puts both Charles and Catherine through the emotional ringer. Catherine is also a product of her conservative time, a believer in marriage until death do us part, something that Nelly, too, adheres to, which is why she resists Charles’ blandishments for as long as she does.

Felicity Jones
As Nelly, Felicity Jones has to tread a very fine line, getting across Nelly’s innocence – her family has sheltered her from the negative aspects of the acting world – but also providing evidence of her strong will and courage to go against the societal grain. Her great love of Dickens’ books may have predisposed her to love the man as well as the writer. It’s a flawlessly calibrated performance – in two time frames - by a young actress who is going to go places. Fiennes also stages Nelly's consummation with Dickens in a subtly erotic manner, properly making its point with suggestion instead of inappropriate explicitness, as befits the era it takes place in. Kudos, too, to the rest of the cast, notably the great Kristin Scott Thomas as Nelly’s understanding mother, who signs onto her daughter’s illicit relationship once she is convinced that the great writer really loves Nelly. She also knows that as Nelly is not cut out for acting, unlike her sisters, that this might be a way out of a potential life of poverty or servitude for the young girl. It’s an unglamorous but riveting performance. (I hope her recent declaration that she is quitting screen acting turns out to be short lived. It would be a major loss otherwise.) Tom Hollander as author Wilkie Collins (The Moonstone), Dickens’ great friend and theatrical co-producer is also terrific, both in his rapport with Fiennes’ Dickens (they bicker like songwriters Gilbert and Sullivan did in Mike Leigh’s highly entertaining Topsy-Turvy) and in his similar, sad dilemma in fearing to confront Victorian hypocrisy and morals. (He ‘lives in sin’ with a woman (and their son) because he despises the institution of marriage but cannot advertise or reveal that fact.) I wish more had been done with the portraits of Nelly's supportive sisters, which are mostly just glancing or Dickens' adult son Charlie, who disapproves of his father’s new relationship, but he fails to come across with much force or depth And John Kavanagh as the Reverend who discovers Nelly’s secret (her past has been carefully hidden from view) functions more as a convenient plot device than anything else though his acting is fine.

Minor quibbles aside, The Invisible Woman, handsomely mounted and photographed, coheres remarkably well, especially when you consider that much of it is supposition since Dickens and Ternan burnt all their correspondence, rendering the extent of their actual relationship and its salient details, which I won’t spoil for you here, as mere speculation. But even if The Invisible Woman is more fiction than fact, it’s so well thought out, put together and acted, that its dramatic underpinnings and plot points make it comparable to the great, gritty, sprawling masterworks of Dickens himself. No higher compliment can be paid.

- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on acting archetypes. Starting Monday, January 20 to March 17 from 7-9pm, Shlomo examines the work and career of Steven Spielberg (Defining Greatness) at the Miles Nadal JCC at Spadina and Bloor.

No comments:

Post a Comment