The Invisible Woman – haunting and magical

Ralph Fiennes’ 2nd film as director, the drama The Invisible Woman, is a haunting and magical tale.

The Invisible WomanI’ve admired Ralph Fiennes as an actor through all of his incredibly varied and mesmerising screen performances and his first film as director, a modern Balkan-set adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (in which he also starred) was a thrillingly visceral piece of work. But although his 2nd film behind the camera, is the Victorian-set drama The Invisible Woman, it’s a no less visceral experience.

Even though Fiennes also acts in this, as a middle aged Charles Dickens at the height of his fame, the real star here is the amazing Felicity Jones as The Invisible Woman of the title. She’s Ellen (Nelly) Ternan, one of the actress daughters of Kristin Scott-Thomas’s Frances Ternan making their living touring in 1850’s Britain. Coming into contact with Dickens for a play he’s producing with his writer and friend Wilkie Collins (an always excellent Tom Hollander), it’s a transformative moment for both of them but in Fiennes superbly accomplished film, everything is beautifully underplayed and subtly nuanced.

The thought of Nelly embarking on a relationship with the famous writer would not only ruin her reputation but also his marriage to Joanna Scanlan’s collected wife and we watch all these momentous thoughts flicker across Jones’ expressive face. She really is an actor of incredible talent. Having been blown away by her performance opposite Guy Pearce in Drake Doremus’ drama Breathe In and enchanted by her turn in the romantic comedy Chalet Girl, here she delivers a mature and emotionally focused portrait of a woman trapped in both a relationship that fulfills her and within the constraints of the time.

The Invisible Woman_Dickens and NellyIt’s in the framing of shots that Fiennes the director, working with cinematographer Rob Hardy, were I felt an example of how much he’d grown in boldness from his debut feature to this – they are perfectly chosen, giving an amazing sweep and scope to the movie. The pacing of the film too is also finely judged with the moving between the development of Dickens and Ternan’s relationship and flashbacks of her life years later with Tom Brooke’s softly spoken schoolteacher, extremely affecting.

It’s here Nelly also strikes up a friendship with a local priest John Kavanagh, who can tell something enormous has happened to this seemingly collected young wife before arriving in this new life. He works out who she is and becomes her confidante, remarking how wonderful it must have been to be so close to a man whose work was ‘haunting and magical’. That closeness came at a high price though and the shots of Jones being lost in a moment of remembrance for what her life used to be, are like a shot to the heart.

As Dickens, Fiennes is both a powerfully commanding and at times, a more hidden presence, almost pulling back to leave the focus squarely on Jones. When you have 2 actors that can produce this level of raw emotion, about a time when feelings were more often than not kept in check, you have a film that slowly and simply begins to exert its pull on you and that leaves you quietly devastated at its conclusion.

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