Friday, January 24, 2014

Ralph Fiennes' Wispy THE INVISIBLE WOMAN Doesn't Do Dickens Justice

Now playing in the Triangle at the Raleigh Grande in Raleigh and the Chelsea Theatre in Chapel Hill:

(Dir. Ralph Fiennes, 2013) 

In Ralph Fiennes’ follow-up to his directorial debut, the little seen but acclaimed 2011 Shakespeare adaptation CORIOLANUS, the English actor casts himself as literary legend Charles Dickens in this star-crossed Victorian era love story.

Fiennes’ film, adapted by Abi Morgan (THE IRON LADY) from Claire Tomalin’s 1991 bio “The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens,” is an artsy attempt to shed light on the young actress who Dickens left his wife of 22 years for in 1858.

The story is told through the eyes of Nelly Ternan, portrayed by Felicity Jones, who captured many critics’ hearts in Drake Doremus’ 2011 college romance drama LIKE CRAZY.

In 1885, 15 years after Dickens’ death, Jones’ Ternan is the wife of a stuffy British school headmaster (Tom Burke) directing students in a production of one of Dicken’s plays.

This causes her to reminiscence, in cinematic flashback form, about when she was an 18-year old aspiring actress who became the object of Dicken’s affections three decades earlier.

That was when Ternan was part of an acting family with her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and two sisters (Perdita Weeks and Amanda Hale). Fiennes’ Dickens has been estranged for some time from his indifferent overweight spouse (Joanna Scanlan keeping poise in an especially especially unflattering role) as we see them walking on egg shells around each other as they sleep in separtate chambers.

When noticing that Ternan is harboring a crush, Mrs. Dickens dismissingly tells her that her husband’s work is merely “designed to be entertainment.” Ternan affectionately counters: “Surely it’s more than that – it changes us.”

We see what a superstar Dickens was when he’s mobbed when recognized at a racetrack (mostly by middle aged men, mind you), but when he dissolves his marriage in order to be with Ternan there is only the mildest talk of a scandal; no real damage appears to be done to Dickens’ reputation.

Cinematographer Tom Hardy gives the film a lush look, and Michael O’Connor’s immaculate costume designs definitely deserve the Oscar nomination (the film’s only nod) it got last week, but the romance between Fiennes and Jones is severely lacking.

Jones, who Hardy’s camera appears to adore in a series of soft focus close-ups, too quickly goes from being smitten with the man behind such works as “Great Expectations,” “A Christmas Carol,” and “David Copperfield,” to seming like she’d rather be anywhere else. This is especially notable in their awkward sex scene.

Seemingly out of respect, Fiennes does what he can to make Dickens more charming than creepy, but the end result is a dull detachment to the character. We never get the feeling that Dickens was madly in love with this woman; in fact the impression is that he’s just slightly happier to be with somebody younger and prettier than his wife of two decades.

Maybe the absence of chemistry can be attributed to Fiennes and Jones having played father and daughter in Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s CEMETARY JUNCTION in 2010. That may have gotten in the way of them putting their all into the May-December love story conventions here.

It is also a waste that Scott Thomas, who also acted previously with Fiennes in the Oscar winning Best Picture THE ENGLISH PATIENT (1996), doesn’t have much to do as Jones’ mother. One scene even has Scott Thomas asleep on a couch while the leads are making moony-eyes at each other.

While its well acted and shot, THE INVISIBLE WOMAN is too wispy a film to be engaging.  When first telling the world about Dickens’ mistress, Tomalin wrote of Ternan as having been “someone who almost wasn’t there,” someone “who vanished into thin air.” This all too restrained and uninspired costume drama most likely will have the same fate.

More later...

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