By Glenn Dunks
April 23, 2014
Was it a cruel joke by director Ralph Fiennes to cast Felicity Jones in the title role of his Charles Dickens’ biopic (or sorts), The Invisible Woman. As if deliberately choosing to cast the most milquetoast actor he could find to be ‘invisible’, Jones is completely unable to register the fierce eroticism and longing that is needed for her character. As a result, Fiennes’ film doesn’t connect and instead makes for a rather glum viewing experience with the actor-turned-director unable to realise the true strengths of his second feature hidden in the fringes.
Nelly Ternan (Jones) is the not-so-secret mistress of Dickens (Fiennes) in 1850s England. He is a literary superstar, but as the two carry on the affair with the blessing of Nelly’s icy mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), Charles’ egotistical nature makes the much younger woman confront the toll her private relationship with the famed Great Expectations author is having on herself.
Sumptuously decorated with Oscar-nominated costumes and beautiful production design that replicates the dust-covered stuffiness of the era to a tee, The Invisible Woman is certainly a handsome production. Fiennes is no slouch in that department and his attention to detail with the period setting is admirable. I was less enthusiastic, however, about this representation of women and how his direction of Abi Morgan’s screenplay curiously makes its two central figures highly unlikable.
Instead of identifying with Nelly, it’s Dickens’ wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), that proves to be the most intriguing figure. Scanlan is simply working on a level far beyond her co-stars, and in her few brief yet pivotal scenes is able to burrow deep into her character’s psyche. If the film were more interested in her I’d say she was the invisible woman of the title. Sadly, Fiennes pays more attention to the pretty, young Jones, and this 30-year-old actor lacks the gravitas needed to anchor a picture such as this. Even the regal Kristin Scott Thomas would have made a more interesting central figure. There’s a good movie to be found in this story, but it’s not the one Fiennes has chosen to focus on with this attractive, emotionally flat period romance.
The Invisible Woman is now showing in Australian cinemas.