TELLURIDE, Colo. – More than any other medium, the chemistry between two actors is paramount onscreen. The camera intimately reveals what the stage cannot and, ultimately, is most unforgiving if there is none. The latter, sadly, is the fate of Ralph Fiennes’ impeccably realized “The Invisible Woman,” which premiered at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival on Saturday.
Based on Claire Tomalin’s 1990 novel, the film is the true story of Ellen (“Nelly”) Ternan, a young English woman who had a long affair with legendary writer Charles Dickens in the mid-19th Century. Ternan (Felicity Jones) was only 18-years-old when she met Dickens, 27 years her senior, but he quickly became captivated by the young actress’s charm and intelligence. Dickens (Fiennes) was also seriously disillusioned with his marriage to Catherine Dickens (Joanna Scanlan) at the time and the affair led to their eventual separation. While certain key details regarding the relationship are publicly known, much of their time together was not documented by either party or their families.
The film begins years after Dickens’ death, introducing us to Nelly Warton, a schoolteacher in the seaside town of Margate. Her marriage to George Wharton (Tom Burke), who seems like a fine bloke, is cordial at best. During a dinner party we learn of her family’s friendship with Dickens that supposedly occurred when she was a child. In fact, Nelly has an amazing collection of Dickens’ publications, including one with a personal inscription. Still, something isn’t quite right about Ms. Warton. Something is distracting her, keeping her on edge. At this point, the picture flashes back to Nelly’s former life as young Nelly Ternan and her first encounter with the man who would change her life forever. Eventually the circumstances of Nelly becoming Dickens’ mistress are revealed and all we are left to guess is how Ternan will end up Mrs. George Wharton.
“The Invisible Woman” is Fiennes’ second directorial effort after his underrated debut “Coriolanus” in 2011. Working with up-and-coming cinematographer Rob Hardy (“Shadow Dancer”), Fiennes proves his keen visual eye wasn’t a fluke the first time around. Fiennes, along with editor Nicolas Gaster (“Moon”) also finds superb individual moments from his actors’ performances that other filmmakers might miss. The screenplay, on the other hand, has some issues. Screenwriter Abi Morgan (“Shame, “The Iron Lady”) wants to primarily tell the story from Ternan’s point of view. The problem is she’s unable to depict Dickens’ marital woes without making it a lengthy tangent that distracts from his romance with Ternan. This puts the focus solely on Dickens much too often and makes it unclear whose story this really is. For all of Fiennes’ impressive attention to detail, it’s a flaw that likely could only be overcome by a palpable spark between the picture’s two leads. Unfortunately, that’s an even bigger problem than the script.
Jones, who shined in 2011’s “Like Crazy,” is impressive when portraying Ternan’s broken heart and Fiennes wears Dickens’ charisma endearingly. Almost shockingly, however, there is little attraction and passion between the two actors. As the minutes pass, the audience finds no love to root for or against. The whole affair is almost played as a doomed exercise. The production actually cast Jones first and it appears Fiennes was convinced to play Dickens by his producers and Morgan. In hindsight, he may have been better served by finding another actor who clicked with Jones or vice versa.
One other glaring mistake is Fiennes’ decision to refrain from almost any musical score in the film whatsoever. It’s a gutsy creative choice, but even an unconventional score could have made the movie’s central affair easier to swallow.
Besides some superb costumes and the aforementioned visuals, the best part of “The Invisible Woman” are the individual performances. Relatively unknown in the US, Scanlan is fantastic as Mrs. Dickens, making her sympathetic and not scornful. Fiennes’ “English Patient” co-star Kristin Scott Thomas is wonderfully understated as Ternan’s mother. Tom Hollander provides some slight comic relief as Dickens’ best friend and collaborator Wilkie Collins and “Game of Thrones” star Michelle Fairley has a memorable appearance as Collins’ unmarried companion.
Sony Classics acquired “The Invisible Woman” before its Telluride and Toronto Film Festival premieres. It’s currently scheduled for a limited release before the end of the year for awards consideration. But outside of the costumes and hair and makeup categories, there likely won’t be much in play for this period piece.
“The Invisible Woman” will screen at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival and the 51st New York Film Festival. It will open in limited release on Dec. 25.