Please Note: The screen shots used here are taken from the DVD portion of The Invisible Woman.
A taboo affair, and a meditation on the role of women in Victorian-age England, form the basis for the plush costume drama The Invisible Woman. In showing the results of Charles Dickens' romantic attachment to a much younger fan, actor Ray Fiennes took on this property as his second venture in directing (despite not being much of a Dickens reader) to go along with his playing the celebrated author. With Fiennes, a solid acting performance is assured - but does he cut it as a director? On that score, I'd give him a "Needs Improvement" grade.
The Invisible Woman recounts the period when Dickens (Fiennes), at the height of his fame in 1850s London, delicately squired the 18-year old actress Nelly Ternan (played with a cautious intensity by Felicity Jones). The world-famous novelist and voice for the downtrodden already had a wife and several kids. Carrying on a discreet affair didn't go over too well with anyone - least of all, the two main participants. For a project centering on the man responsible for some of the 19th century's liveliest literature, the action in The Invisible Woman turns out unexpectedly introspective, unrelentingly dour and very chaste (the leads don't even kiss until an hour into the proceedings).
Fans of contemplative, psychologically charged romantic drama ought to find some satisfaction with The Invisible Woman. Fiennes' direction seems too clinical and drawn-out, however - strangely, one never gets a clear sense of why the two main characters are attracted to each other. Fiennes' playful exuberance as Charles Dickens gives the film a much-needed buoyancy, but primarily the story focuses on the reserved personality of Dickens' longtime lover, Nelly Ternan. Opening in the year 1883 at the seaside town of Margate, England, we look in on Nelly as the sensible, pale-skinned and world-weary spouse of a schoolteacher, George Wharton Robinson (Tom Burke). A visit from the local priest prompts George to mention Nelly's long-ago connection with Dickens, whom she describes as a family friend from her childhood. But she's glossing over the real story - a protracted affair which still stings the woman to contemplate.
As the title indicates, The Invisible Woman aims to reveal the true place of women in Victorian British society - and it's not pretty. While Nelly is introduced to Dickens, accompanied by her widowed mother (Fiennes' The English Patient co-star, Kristin Scott Thomas) and two younger sisters, the character already seems defeated by her limited place in the world. Dickens is immediately taken by her, however, and he's delighted to have her employed in a stage play put on by his friend, Wilke Collins (Tom Hollander). Despite being a mediocre actress, Dickens finds himself spellbound by Nelly's individualism and intellect. He subsequently finds any excuse to be around the Ternans, even if it raises eyebrows in polite society. Although he professes a desire to help the family out financially, Mrs. Ternan sees right through Dickens' ploy and sensibly proposes that she doesn't want her daughter's reputation ruined by his passing fancy. Nelly herself doesn't have a huge desire to be a married man's mistress, either - but at this point, what choice does she have? Dickens' infatuation eventually catches up with his plain, plump wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan). Like Mrs. Ternan, Catherine above all else wants to preserve the reputation of her family. Where Catherine is resigned to accept her husband's infidelities, however, Nelly resists the idea of being a "kept woman" even as their relationship becomes physical.
Like many other films directed by actors, Fiennes gives his Invisible Woman cast a lot of room to stretch themselves and contribute compelling work. Across-the-board good performances count as the most favorable aspect here, although it doesn't overcome the other flaws with the film. Besides being overly dour and slow-paced, the flashback structure comes as a letdown. It's intended to show how much Nelly had grown as a result of the affair, but the execution ends up confusing and awkward (plus, Jones as the older Nelly doesn't look remarkably different from the actress as the younger Nelly). Fiennes portrays Dickens as a jovial, magnetic presence - but he's also something of a passive-aggressive heel, doing humiliating things like sending his wife to personally deliver a birthday gift to Nelly. He then tries to impress Nelly on the benefits of modern coupledom by showing her the outré living arrangements of his pal Wilkie Collins (who, unlike Dickens, is unmarried). Swell guy, that Dickens.
The Blu Ray:
Sony Pictures Classics' home video edition of The Invisible Woman comes as a dual-format package housed in a Blu-sized snap-case. The film and bonus features are included in both Blu Ray and DVD format.
A pleasantly detailed, subtly colored mastering is furnished for the Blu Ray's 2.40:1 1080p letterboxed image. Relying extensively on filtered, natural light for a Vermeer-like effect, the film's photography tends to look very soft and milky in dark scenes. While there were times when the image needed a more robust, contrasting effect, it likely was a stylistic decision to keep it muddy (really, the most prominent color here is brown).
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is done in a spacious mix that. In some of the scenes involving rain, wind and other ambient sounds, the effect is nice and atmospheric. The music track tends to be too strident, although since the film uses scoring infrequently it isn't too much of an issue. The film's audio is also provided in Portuguese 5.1 DTS-HD and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital. Optional subtitles are provided in English, English SDH, French, Portuguese and Spanish.
An Audio Commentary with Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones has the duo (recorded together) animatedly discussing the story, historic accuracy, the staging, their approaches to the characters and other subjects. The other notable bonus stuff consists of taped film fest presentations and dry Q&A sessions with the lead actors: SAG Foundation Conversations with Ralph Fiennes & Felicity Jones (26:33); On the Red Carpet at the Toronto Premiere (16:32); and Toronto International Film Festival Press Conference (20:59). A Theatrical Trailer and Previews for other Sony home video releases rounds out the extras.
For those who generalize British historic dramas as overstuffed, deadly-dull slogs, my suggestion is to skip The Invisible Woman - it won't change any minds. In his second effort at directing (after 2011's Coriolanus), Ralph Fiennes approaches this tale of Charles Dickens' real-life affair as a precisely filmed, deliberately paced and vaguely unsatisfying moral lesson. The performances of Fiennes and Felicity Jones have enough nuance to make it mildly intriguing for fans of the genre, however. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.