TIFF Review: 'The Invisible Woman'

Note: 'The Invisible Woman' was screened for our critic at The 2013 Telluride Film Festival, where it played before TIFF.

Having already put his own fevered spin on Shakespeare with 2011’s “Coriolanus,” actor-turned-director Ralph Fiennes sets his sights on another literary great – Charles Dickens – with “The Invisible Woman,” a cool, compelling follow-up in which he plays the beloved English author opposite Felicity Jones as the eponymous mistress, Ellen “Nelly” Ternan.

We initially join Ternan later in her life, as she stages a grade school production of Dickens’ “No Thoroughfare” in 1883, apparently incapable of doing so without recalling fonder times in which Ternan was cast alongside her sisters and mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) in a Dickens-directed performance of “The Frozen Deep” in 1857. Already something of a celebrity, the acclaimed author and playwright was in his forties while Nelly was a fledgling actress in her teens, and not a terribly well-regarded one at that. Nonetheless, she loved his work and he, her youthful vigor, a welcome contrast to dowdy wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan). “I walk at quite a pace,” Dickens coyly admits, and Nelly looks to keep up in many regards.

In adapting Claire Tomalin’s biography of Ternan, Fiennes and writer Abi Morgan mercifully forsake the gee-golly traditions of similar fame-minded fare (“My Week with Marilyn,” “Me and Orson Welles”) in constructing a narrative as emotionally repressed as its subjects must have been, with each character existing within their own arena of personal and social compromise. Though publicly adored, Fiennes’ Dickens perceives himself to be privately neglected, not an egomaniac so much as a man with short-sighted concerns, willing to disregard the mother of his ten (!) children for the passion of an extramarital affair. To that end, Scanlan embodies but one of several of the film’s invisible women, a downtrodden domestic presence who makes a strong, sad impression with just a handful of scenes.

When Catherine and Nelly meet, for instance, hardly any improper behavior has occurred, a fact that doesn’t prevent Mrs. Dickens from addressing her guest with equal envy and pity for what’s to come. Nelly’s mother similarly offers a premature warning while also acknowledging that her daughter may never find a better prospect than Charles, his marriage and family be damned. Having already objected to the illicit romantic arrangement between Dickins’ creative partner, Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander), and his own discreet suitor, Nelly does initially hesitate to indulge her idol’s advances. As the relationship inevitably proceeds, Jones’ perfectly taciturn performance captures well her concerns over whether the need to feel wanted outweighs the possibility of being forgotten or, worse yet, remembered by others for all the wrong reasons.

That very Victorian sense of scandal looms over the proceedings, with social propriety constantly pinching love like a corset. The costume and set design are all expectedly impeccable throughout, while cinematographer Rob Hardy (“Shadow Dancer,” “Red Riding 1974”) evokes a suitably shadowy look ideal for both the scantily lit era and our protagonist’s lingering doubts. From behind the camera, Fiennes often emphasizes slow pushes and pulls in keeping with the subdued mood, occasionally lining up particularly painterly shots such as the reveal of a seemingly frozen crowd awaiting the end of a horse race. With the help of a smartly positioned coda, the film is bookended by a pair of stage performances and, in turn, makes a subtle case that these characters never really stopped putting on a show.

SCORE: 7.8 / 10

“The Invisible Woman” will open in limited release on December 25th.