“The Invisible Woman”: Ralph Fiennes Channels Dickens, the Ladies' Man

As a sort of counter-programming to the relentless pep of American Hustle or The Wolf of Wall Street, may we suggest Ralph Fiennes' stoic and tastefully oblique Charles Dickens biopic? In his sophomore feature as a director, Fiennes avails himself of some impressive production values, including discretion and intelligence, unhurriedly homing in on the clandestine affair between middle-aged Dickens (Fiennes) and teenaged aspiring actress Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), to whom the movie's title and narrative perspective pays somber tribute. The restrictive social context of the affair is filled out with wise awareness by Kristen Scott Thomas as Nelly's mother and Joanna Scanlan as Charles' wife, but our first dramatic priority clearly is that low-boil love story between the master and the mistress. Abi Morgan's script alertly adapts Claire Tomalin's Dickens biography, but the prevailing sense of collectedness must come from Fiennes, whose best performances always seem somehow invitingly recessive — as befits his portrayal of a publicly venerated Victorian. Muted, mannerly, and more thoughtful than adventurous, The Invisible Woman doesn't quite teem with life, but it could be called Dickensian for so sensitively exploring the idea that, as Nelly concludes from her experience, “Whoever we're with, we're alone.”

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