NY Film Festival: Ralph Fiennes Does A Devious Dickens in The Invisible Woman

It goes without saying that Charles Dickens was an incomparable literary force in chronicling the ravages of poverty, social injustice and exploitation during the Victorian era, in novels like Hard Times, Oliver Twist and A Tale Of Two Cities.

And it goes without saying – literally – hardly a word about any of this, in the Ralph Fiennes scandal sheet biopic, The Invisible Woman. And, as a mere extra-thin slice of life derived from the eminent author’s extraordinary existence, in this case involving his secret affair with a young mistress. In effect, this film could have just as well been titled The Invisible Man.

Perhaps the fault lies, not with Fiennes as a flawed filmmaker – because his visual sense of setting and place is immaculately crafted and viscerally accomplished. But rather the proviso which tends to hold true, that actors, even with the most dedicated and best intentions, should never direct movies, just as patients should not be allowed to perform their own surgeries. Simply because what ensues is less an engaging and cohesive narrative, than a disappointing when not frustrating series of acting workshops with a primary emphasis on gestures, facial communication and emotional expression.

invisible woman
The Invisible Woman

Directed by Fiennes and with a screenplay by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, Shame), The Invisible Woman is based on the biography by Claire Tomalin about Ellen ‘Nelly’ Ternan, played by Felicity Jones. A failed young actress, Nelly was just a teenager when she became infatuated with Dickens, a forty-five year old Victorian version of a rock star back then. And Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) seems to have been in the throes of midlife crisis at the moment, as he abandons his wife and ten children for the adoring but emotionally ambivalent groupie.

In the course of this overly inhibited outing that oddly lacks the outpouring of unrestrained passion necessary for a tale about risking everything for love, nobody seems to be happy about any of this. Which leads to a persistent, nagging question throughout, that with humiliations and compromised reputations abounding all around – why even bother. We do learn about Dickens’ sideline theatrical dabblings, but next to nothing about what really made him an enduring, iconic literary figure. Nor the tempestuous historical time of primitive capitalism back then, the oppressive Industrial Revolution, and the cruelty of rigid class antagonisms that fueled his writings.

So essentially, rather than a production where we learn from the past, The Invisible Woman seems to be designed the other way around. That is, a tabloid creation, skimming the surface of sensationalistic details that inhabit and appear artificially imposed upon some sort of tacky drawing room vintage reality show. And telegraphing a claustrophobic, stuffy sentimentality surrounding a grim love triangle devoid of any hint of steamy erotic heat necessary to drive such personal sacrifice – a triangle imprisoning a trophy celebrity, his young prey, and that third irresistible elixir – fame.

The prologue to the film reads in Dickens’ own words, to the effect that every creature inevitably remains a profound mystery and secret to one another. Indeed.

The Invisible Woman is a feature of this year’s New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, and will open in theaters December 25th from Sony Pictures Classics. More information about the NY Film Festival is online at filmlinc.com.

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.