Director: Ralph Fiennes
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristen Scott Thomas, Tom Hollander, Joanna Scanlan
Written by: Abi Morgan and (based on the book) Claire Tomalin
Running Time: 111 mins
Release date: 7th February 2014
Ralph Fiennes has only directed one other film before The Invisible Woman, a big screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, and as assured as that piece was for a debut, his second feature proves that his is not only a top-notch actor but a man with a terrific cinematic eye, because, this is a beautiful looking film.
Nelly is the fourth and youngest daughter to Mrs. Frances Ternan, a family of actresses, who is brought into a new play written by Wilkie Collins and directed by Charles Dickens, when her sister is offered other work. This first meeting becomes the starting point of a very secret desire between the girl and the famous writer, who was already married and father of ten children. Without saying a word or making his intentions clear, it becomes apparent to Nelly’s mother that something is not right and as the days go on, this secret love blossoms, with Dickens knowing that a scandal of an older man and a younger woman out-of-wedlock could destroy his public persona.
The one thing that stays with you once you have left the cinema is how exquisitely beautiful this film looks. The production values are incredible with the details or Victorian England almost painstakingly accurate, from the costumes to the decor. Add on top of that Rob Hardy’s luscious cinematography, in which almost every frame is like a painting. If ever there were a film that could be called a piece of art, this would be it.
Based on Claire Tomalin’s best-selling book (in which nothing has been proven), Fiennes has delivered a sumptuous and sometimes painful love story, in which less is definitely more. It lingers on looks, uses silences to speak volumes and within the carefully aligned shadows, a simple touch means more than a word could say. Fiennes really does understand subtlety and favours it to portray this tale of forbidden love.
At the same time, this film moves at almost a snail’s pace and while this is very admirable, allowing the story to carefully unfold, it does have moments where it could have picked up a little. The film does seem to take a lifetime to get going and it takes some getting use to, but thanks to the overall look and some tremendously impressive performances, it manages to keep the attention.
We all know that Fiennes is a fine actor and here he proves once more that skill he has, showing us two sides to the legendary writer, Charles Dickens. A playful, energetic man within the public eye, he has a dark and cruel private life, treating his wife with very little respect while calculating how to woo the young Nellie. Even then, fearful of his standing in the world, he abandons his young love at a time when she really needs him after an accident. Fiennes manages that difficult balancing act brilliantly and can chalk up another superb central performance.
The supporting players are on fine form too. The always excellent Kristen Scott Thomas, as Nelly’s mother, brings that air of class she always brings to the screen, while Tom Hollander, always good value, as Wilkie Collins throws in a playfully character who doesn’t care what people say about him and his unmarried relationship with his partner, something the Victorians frowned upon.
A special mention must go to Joanna Scanlan as Catherine Dickens, Charles’ put upon and jilted wife. It’s a beautifully underplayed performance that is also incredibly heartbreaking, especially after hearing the breakdown of her marriage in an open letter in The Times. One other brilliantly handled scene involved Dickens and Catherine watching each other slowly disappear while a carpenter bangs planks of wood across the wall between them. So much is said in that scene between Fiennes and Scanlan without a word being uttered.
At the centre of the film is Felicity Jones as the title character. She has to almost carry the film while having to hold her own among these great actors and she does an admirable job. She conveys the emotions of a woman who, first and foremost, is a fan of Dickens who finds herself in this confused world of love, lust and disappointment. She has come a long way since her days in the dire Chalet Girl and is definitely an actress who will go a very long way.
Those with a fascination with Victorian England, with Dickens or with perfectly made cinema will undoubtedly be impressed by this superbly crafted piece. It might not attract the multiplex gang and some may find the pace a little too slow, to the point of boredom kicking in. Those willing to run the course will be extremely satisfied with a delicious film about the angst of secret love.