by Tony Dayoub
Ralph Fiennes' second directorial effort, The Invisible Woman is an adaptation of Claire Tomalin's book of the same name, which detailed the long hidden love affair between author Charles Dickens and Ellen "Nelly" Ternan. Considerably younger than Dickens (played by Fiennes), Nelly (Felicity Jones) was an actress from a family of actors who the movie posits may have begun the relationship as a bit of a moon-eyed groupie. Dickens was already renowned for his works and his appearance was well known to many a Londoner. This makes for the film's best instances showing the at times negative aspects of fame Dickens—who enjoyed the adulation—had to contend with as he carried out his dalliance. No doubt this facet of the story was the easiest point of identification for the congenial and celebrated Fiennes.
Alas, the dominant point of view in The Invisible Woman isn't Dickens' but that of Nelly. That's a problem because so much of the movie ends up resting on Jones' shoulders, something which seems fairly beyond her abilities. Like Nelly was the least talented actress in her clan, Jones is probably the least capable in the film, hardly displaying the range necessary to interpret neither the giddy joys connected to loving a notable celebrity nor the dreadful lows of conducting an illicit affair in the Victorian era. Instead Jones seems stuck in a permanent mode of melancholia, an unlikely reason to continue a years-long affair. Passion, as far as Nelly is concerned, is only applied by Fiennes' intrusive camera direction—a problem in his last film, Coriolanus, but less so here. During long walks at the beach in later years, after Dickens' death, the camera follows Nelly from behind in self-conscious, handheld tracking shots that in this kind of costume drama are as jarring as anything in Paul Greengrass's work.
Surprisingly, it is Joanna Scanlan as Catherine, Dickens' overly average wife, who stands out. Her portrayal is limited to a very narrow canvas given Catherine's inability to fully engage with her husband's celebrity either because of her homeliness, lack of intellect, or both. So for much of the early going a typical Scanlan reaction shot simply shows us a slightly puckered face with a hint of a frown. But one scene, in which Catherine discovers Dickens is separating from her from an open letter he had published in the newspaper, is devastating enough that Scanlan would do well to add that to her reel if not submit it for awards consideration at the end of the year. Indeed with Jones having to compete with Scanlan for the viewer's sympathies, its ironic that one's takeaway from The Invisible Woman is not that the title refers to Nelly, but that it might ultimately refer to Felicity Jones herself.
The Invisible Woman is playing at the 51st New York Film Festival at 8:30 pm tonight at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, 1941 Broadway (at 65th Street), New York, NY 10023. It is part of a gala tribute to Ralph Fiennes and will be preceded by an extended onstage conversation with the actor-director. For ticket information go online here, or call (212) 721-6500.