[Review] - The Invisible Woman

Courtesy of BBC Films
Full disclosure: I've never been that interested in Charles Dickens. While I respect this contribution to literature, he's not my favourite of the Victorian authors, and I rarely revisit his works. Because of my lack of interest in his works, I've never been over come by the desire to learn much about his life. So, while The Invisible Woman covers a period in Dickens' life that is largely unknown to those that are familiar with the author, I went into the film almost completely blind. Perhaps because I had no expectations, or brought any preconceptions into the theater with me, the film had an opportunity to win me over or lose me completely. And happily, it managed the former.

The film manages to avoid the trap of most historical biopics, in that the established events are not allowed to dictate the course of the story. Rather, Abi Morgan's script and Ralph Fiennes direction focuses entirely on the characters of Dickens and his secret lover Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), as their romance evolves over the course of the final thirteen years of Dickens' life. It is as deliberately and dryly paced as any of Dickens' novels; a slow, winding character study that manages to both bask in and treat as immaterial the fact that it is a beautifully laid out period piece.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that have known the comforts of many fallen women.

The success of the film lies with it's leads, Jones first, than Fiennes. Both bring rounded depth to these haunted characters: Jones filling the framing scenes, which see her long mourning and emptied soul in the years after dickens has died, with a subtle and bubbling anguish. And Fiennes, as the flighty and playful Dickens who lets down his guard only when the loneliness creeps into his life. Dickens, in view of the public, was a man-child, always running about, laughing and bursting with energy. The film does not shy away from showing his after hours side, the shadow-draped figure sitting alone, wanting only the company of an equal mind and welcoming body to keep him warm.

Ternan provides that company, though extremely begrudgingly. Their romance is not the product of a "meet cute," or a salacious affair, but born out of a mutual respect that grows over years of acquaintance. And, given the time, it was the two active participants that are least interested in proceeding any further than friendship. Ternan's mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) advocates the arrangement, believing that being the kept mistress of a renowned author is the best that her daughter could hope for in life. Dickens' wife (Joanna Scanlan) too accepts the logic of the situation, herself having been declared simple and uninterested. Despite the customs of the Victorians, the film goes to some lengths to show that, even in a time when women were so easily and often vilified, those that were properly in love found ways to be together. It is Nelly herself that resists a relationship, fearing for the perception placed upon her by society, and long after Dickens is gone and she had adapted to a conventional life, she finds emptiness and constant heartache.

The performances keep the film alive when it drifts into periods of over description. Fiennes develops a strong liking for lingering shots, most of which serve a point. But like Dickens getting paid by the word, and inflating his manuscripts accordingly, Fiennes fills in extra seconds with sustained shots that might have otherwise been cut. But I'm not to begrudge him seconds, and the film moves quicker than you'd think. It only begins to falter once Nelly and Charles come together, and the rest of the cast all but disappears. Once they've surmounted the mores of Victorian sensibility, and have begun to live together as a couple, the film looses something. Perhaps it's because the challenge has been won. The odds are beaten, and both persons avoided disgrace, and all that is left for them is to exist in whatever sliver of harmony they can steal. There is no more opposition, and thanks to the intermittent framing device that sees Nelly older and suffering from Dickens' absence, we know how things end for them both.

Invisible Woman is a quiet, dignified film, filled with wonderful performances and a largely female cast. As a period piece, it manages to capture the juxtaposition of society at the time, from the sprawling manors of the rich to the drudges of London's side streets. It feels at times that Fiennes filmed through a lens into the past, catches action through narrow halls and around door frames. It also highlights, indites and undermines the Victorian mindset, and hints at the social changes that wouldn't sweep the western world for a further hundred years, but were beginning to sneak their way into the undercurrent of society. Social acceptance of separation and the commonality of unmarried relationships, which were at the time career ending secrets, are given advocation. It also hints at the inspiration of Dickens' works, and the balance of genius which can be so overpowering unless tempered. The film made me appreciate the man more, and in that appreciation, the decision to revisit the works which I have ignored for so long.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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