Like all writers sat in front of the blank page, Charles Dickens was an isolated man, whose vitality and vigour for social engagement found its fullest expression treading the boards in the company of actors. Charging across the stage and showing himself to be quite the accomplished amateur actor, it’s an unexpected, attention-grabbing introduction to the man whose written work so famously represents the pinnacle of the Victorian Age and novels of the time.
Capturing the after hours camaraderie of a troupe of thesps after the curtain has come down, Ralph Fiennes’ second film as director promises something much more richly coloured and detailed than your standard biopic in its early scenes, which also highlight the first of many larger problems. Time spent with this peripheral social circle telling tales long into the night by the embers of the heath, ultimately proves far more engaging than the scandalous love affair at the heart of the film.
We first meet Nelly (Felicity Jones) in 1885, striding across a deserted beach and dressed in black. Isolated against a turbulent sea and forlon sky, a swell of memories take us back to the time of her involvement with Dickens, and the ruinous relationship which forced her to make a fresh start by changing her name and lying about her age to the man she later married.
Nelly comes from a family of actors headed by Kristen Scott Thomas’ matriarch, though this is not a skill she has a natural gift for. She is – we are often told – a woman of many other talents, but apart from her devotion to Dickens’ writing (she owns every edition of his books and pamphlets and can recite them verbatim), you’re likely to leave the film still unsure as to what those other talents were. First attracted by her gushing worship, Dickens soon begins to see Nelly as an artistic muse and clandestine love interest, though their affair is very much on his terms. Trading whispered sweet nothings that prettify emotional lust, Dickens, a rockstar of the age who was more popular than Queen Victoria, is very aware of the consequences of poetically flirting with an underage girl out of wedlock, so he spurns Nelly for that love of the mob which he understands and can more readily use to satisfy his ego.
Adapting Claire Tomlin’s biography, famed screenwriter of the moment Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady, The Hour) attempts to move Dickens away from Victorian caricature and interrogate more complex emotional conflicts, but her un-judgemental script seems so afraid of making Dickens the villain, it has the effect of making a known character completely unknowable. The lovers are infuriatingly restrained even by the standards of the time, and the screenplay is too subtle for its own good. By refusing to take a side on almost everything, Morgan quashes any possible dramatic tension.
As Dickens, Fiennes gives him a gregarious, spindly energy that I’m very much looking forward to seeing used to its full potential in the screwball delights of Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, but leaning on his habit from many heavy period pictures past, Fiennes delivers every line as if accompanied by a string quartet at a funeral. Nelly’s love for her idol is unrequited in the way she wants but remains steadfast, and similarly, Jones’ performance is stoically silent and one note.
When they are together, we see Nelly through the haze of Dickens’ maddening infactuation but what stokes these feelings in him and where they sprung from is never satisfactorily settled upon. In the same frame, Fiennes and Jones lack a crucial chemistry which is so important when the passions felt are as reticent as they are here. If Nelly is supposed to have provoked a period of furiously productive output, her inspiration is only felt in the way she fawningly tells the author tells how great he is. When Dickens announces that he’s finally finished “Great Expectations”, it’s the first we’ve heard of such a mammoth, important undertaking, and what part Nelly played in its creation is again, frustratingly vague. By the film’s end, it’s far easier to see Nelly as the cause of an honorable man’s tarnished reputation than it is a source of much-needed artistic encouragement, and that surely wasn’t the intention.
Dickens talks of their having spent days of joy and celebration together but there’s never any sense or sight of it. When he later speaks of their affair as “a tale of woe and and sorrow” Rob Hardy’s beautifully bleak visuals seems to indicate that this is more on point. Flickering candles and fading lamps provide no warmth, and the wan light of rain-soaked, snoot-smeared streets is like a liquid that seems to evaporate, outlining characters in dark silhouettes before swallowing them whole in black.
At one time, The Invisible Woman was thought of as a possible Oscar contender, and it really did deserve some recognition for its cinematography, though the atmosphere is so pungent, it has the unwanted side effect of making everything feel airless and sleepy. It’s only when an ear-splitting train wreck rattles the film awake that you realise the depth of the stupor into which it has imperceptibly slipped.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on February 10, 2014