By Danny King.
For his first two stabs at directing, Ralph Fiennes has selected subject matter that seems typical of an actor-turned-director almost to the point of parody. His 2011 debut, Coriolanus, took an oft-disregarded but palpably intense Shakespeare text as its starting point, and the resulting film is jam-packed with juicy, three-course-meal performances, not least of which is Fiennes’ own charged, explosive work as the eponymous warrior. His new film, The Invisible Woman, positions Fiennes as a famous historical figure (Charles Dickens) caught inside a Victorian-era plot of infidelity, secrecy, and repression; that the film could easily be described using standard period-romance descriptors—“classy,” “tasteful,” “elegant,” “patient”—further gives it the aura of an object that was hand-crafted by a diligent thespian.
What’s surprising about these two films, however, is the apparent filmmaking knowledge that Fiennes possesses. Coriolanus and The Invisible Woman are mounted with completely dissimilar aesthetic designs, which is to say that Fiennes has both the desire and the know-how to adjust his directorial approach in order to suit the story at hand—a clear sign of someone who’s thinking through the actual filmmaking process, and not just using the authority of the director’s position to play dress-up and deliver thick monologues. And if the in-your-face immediacy of Coriolanus sometimes seemed hectic and derivative—with the drab palette and scattershot camerawork playing like a direct descendant of DP Barry Ackroyd’s collaborations with Paul Greengrass and Kathryn Bigelow—the controlled, unhurried style of The Invisible Woman comes as a welcome and suitable shift in form.
Adapted from Claire Tomalin’s same-named biography, the film’s screenplay, by Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady), carefully juggles multiple timelines. The movie begins in Margate in 1883 (thirteen years after Dickens’ death), where schoolteacher Ellen “Nelly” Ternan (Felicity Jones) is leading a group of pupils in a rehearsal of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins’ No Thoroughfare. Married to the headmaster (Tom Burke), with whom she has two children, Nelly nevertheless appears aloof and distant in these early rehearsals, a feeling that’s accentuated all the more once her former relationship with Dickens is brought up as a topic of conversation. She’s able to dodge extended discussion of the famed author by claiming that she was “just a kid” when her family knew the man, but her insecurities drag her mind into the past, and Morgan’s script soon flashes back to “some years earlier” in Rome, when an 18-year-old Nelly first met Dickens (Fiennes) during a rehearsal of The Frozen Deep.
Part of the satisfaction of The Invisible Woman is how much time it takes for Nelly and Dickens’ illicit affair to reach its most torrid stages. Fiennes expends a lot of deliberate legwork in introducing the ensemble cast, establishing the societal mores, and planting the seeds of the two characters’ attraction to one another, and his patience pays off as a number of the story’s most interesting developments revolve around supporting characters. Where Dickens’ wife (Joanna Scanlan) initially seems a mere signifier of a stale marriage—a mother of ten whose stamina for life has long been on its last legs—Scanlan, over the course of several scenes, builds an unexpectedly strong portrait of a neglected wife, finding agency and understanding in roundabout ways.
Additionally, rather than merely focusing on Nelly, Fiennes spends valuable time portraying the Ternan family in its entirety, beginning with mother Frances (Kristin Scott Thomas). At first, the interactions between Fiennes’s Dickens and the Ternans are cordial, public affairs—dinner parties, short conversations before and after stage performances—but as Dickens becomes an increasingly prevalent presence in their lives, it quickly dawns on Frances that he may indeed be interested in one of her daughters. Frances’ resigned acceptance of Dickens’ feelings for Nelly—who, as perhaps the least talented actress of the family, could well use the practical and financial support of an esteemed male figure—registers as startling and powerful.
In his second actor-director outing, Fiennes’ performance begins on a charismatic note, with Dickens’ public persona as an infectious, beguiling showman—jolly magic tricks at parties, impassioned public readings of his books—defining the character. One scene in particular, in which he recites a thrilling, stormy passage from David Copperfield, is reminiscent of some of the actor’s hot-headed stretches of iambic pentameter in Coriolanus; in both of these films, Fiennes the actor takes great pleasure in basking in the language of these writers. But as The Invisible Woman progresses into ill-fated-affair territory, Fiennes dials it back, partly because the affair itself, as depicted, is largely void of bliss or contentment. Save for one dazzling montage—with images and sounds of fields, grass, wind, and trees bleeding into each other, creating a kind of muted impressionism—the relationship between Nelly and Dickens is mostly depicted with stress and conflict, the burden of Nelly’s distraught point-of-view weighing down any sense of gratifying romance.
The look of The Invisible Woman, aided by the work of production designer Maria Djurkovic (who somehow wasn’t even Oscar-nominated for her amazing job on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), is wrapped in amber, wood, shadow, and lamps. Mirrors, windows, and reflections abound as well, helping to articulate the theme of living a double life, but even more impressive is the restraint of Fiennes’s technique. Shot on lush 35mm by cinematographer Rob Hardy—whose period-piece credentials include James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer and Julian Jarrold’s Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 (the latter of which was shot on 16mm)—the film has a classical appeal right from the opening establishing shot of a beach, the camera so still and removed that the shore and the water are nearly indistinguishable from one another. Into the bright frame walks a figure—Nelly—cloaked in all black. Fiennes then cuts to a close following shot behind Nelly’s back, the force of her walk emphasized by the sound of her feet punching against the sand. Fiennes’s use of diegetic sound is impressive throughout the film; he rarely relies on Ilan Eshkeri’s score to create the effect he’s after.
Elsewhere, Fiennes’s compositions achieve an attractive delicacy: whether it’s the tableaux arrangements of large social gatherings, or the intimate two-shots that give Fiennes and the excellent Jones an opportunity to interact within the confines of a single frame, the director’s visual configurations are adept at enhancing the story’s psychological and emotional pull. His finest technique of all might be the one that predominantly characterizes the present-day, post-Dickens section of the film. The camera is frequently sneaking up behind Jones in these segments; so aligned is it with her gait that it could almost be said to be breathing on her neck, suggesting some kind of spirit or presence that is following her. In these moments, the moral load of her past is still with her, and though the ending hints at a moving-forward redemption, the sound of the crashing waves on that beach will likely never leave Nelly.
Danny King is an undergraduate in the Cinema Studies department at New York University. He is also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. His writings have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Paste Magazine, The Film Stage, and other publications.