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As follow-up to his directorial debut Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes has chosen to shine a light on a hidden corner of Charles Dickens' life with the biopic The Invisible Woman. This ambitious second effort from the celebrated actor turn director stars Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan, a beguiling young actress who unintentionally enchanted the middle-aged and married author into a long-lasting affair. Lush with color, costumes, and luxurious set dressing, a great deal of detail and effort has clearly gone into the construction of this period piece’s 1800s England setting. Unfortunately all is wasted as Fiennes mines little depth in this lackluster romantic drama.
Aside from helming, Fiennes also stars as Dickens, and ably presents him as a charismatic, egocentric yet jolly ringmaster who has the public, press, and his acting troupe following his every lead. Less impressed by this ceaseless showman is his wife (Joanna Scanlan), a plump and coldly disinterested woman who just so happens to be the mother of his fleet of children. When 18-year-old Nelly joins the cast of one of Dickens’ plays, who could blame him for eying the pretty young ingénue that has a feverish love of his works? Moreover, who—Fiennes’ movie seems to demand—could blame him for publicly casting his wife aside for her?
Part of so what makes The Invisible Woman as gratingly dull as it is that it plays so contentedly into the cliché of an older powerful man falling for a young, beautiful girl who is fascinated by him and all his glory. This tired trope may have been unavoidable in keeping true to the real-life events, but it could have been forgivable if Fiennes and Jones shared an electric onscreen chemistry. Sadly, they do not.
He ogles her with eager eyes and she demurely steals glances of him. He moves close to her, and instead of being drawn in by the sexual tension radiating heat from the screen (Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre come to mind) I was repulsed as Dickens' giant bearded face sniffed pathetically about his young crush and her doe-eyes. The film's characters opine on and on about love and undeniable attraction, but with Fiennes so earnest and Jones so static the whole romance angle feels frigid and flat. Part of this seems to be Fiennes overreaching as a director.
Despite its attractive art design, there is an awkwardness to the film's execution that actually makes some moments hard to watch. While the cinematography is often elegant, weaving down hallways, around the sprawling cast or across Jones’s lovely face, the eye-lines in several key scenes don't match. Jarringly, this makes it seem like the actors are talking to people standing just off camera somewhere instead of to the person sitting right in for of them. Another poor choice is an insert shot of a dead baby, or more precisely a doll made to look like a dead baby. Baby doll props are tricky to make look like the real thing to begin with. Without any motion to aid this deception, they just looks like a doll, suspension of disbelief be damned.
As harsh as this will sound though, the movie’s biggest issue is the casting of Jones as its lead. Playing the titular woman, she is in every scene, attempting to reveal the transformation of awestruck ingénue to secret lover to bitter wretch. Jones must shoulder the emotional arc for the film to work, but she can’t manage this range. In most scenes she just appears stoic, slightly sulky, or befuddled. This is cruelly ironic as Nelly herself is said to be an actress who is without talent. Jones is undeniably lovely onscreen in her period attire, but she just doesn’t have the dramatic chops to carry a movie as her close-ups offer little insight into Nelly’s inner world. Coupled with Fiennes’ unwieldy hand The Invisible Woman comes off as little more than an ill-conceived vanity project that is destined to be lost to obscurity.
The Invisible Woman makes its NY premiere tonight at the New York Film Festival. A theatrical release will follow on Christmas Day. For our complete New York Film Festival coverage, click here.