The films with a kind of quiet, thoughtful pleasure are too often overlooked amid the crush of more bombastic, higher-profile Oscar-season prestige releases. The Invisible Woman, a delicately wrought sophomore effort from director Ralph Fiennes, is slipping into area theaters almost under the radar. Displaying an uncommon respect for the audience and a confidence behind the camera that belies the filmmaker’s limited experience, it’s very much worth seeking out.
In lesser hands, The Invisible Woman could have been simply a tawdry tabloid tale from the Victorian era. Based on Claire Tomalin’s 1990 book, it dishes the dirt on a sort of secret, much-whispered-about affair between Charles Dickens (Fiennes) and teenage actress Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones). Nineteenth-century notions of propriety being what they were, it hadn’t yet become commonplace for famous men to shed their wives for younger models every few years. And if they did, they certainly couldn’t be so brazen about it. As such, this is a movie of repressed desires expressed in the space between words. Every conversation seems to be in code.
Ralph Fiennes has been on a roll recently with larger-than-life villainous roles, memorably missing a nose in the Harry Potter pictures and just a couple months ago getting his Dickens on by playing Magwitch in an adaptation of Great Expectations from director Mike Newell. But his deftly underplayed take on the legendary author is a welcome reminder of what a precise actor Fiennes can be, harking back to earlier performances like Quiz Show, in which the tiniest gestures are carefully judged.
He foregrounds Dickens’ vanity, entertaining his rapt crowds of fans with forced conviviality and fussing with his hair to try to cover an increasingly balding pate. Things aren’t going so well at home, as he’s settled into a dreary cohabitation with his portly, disinterested wife (Joanna Scanlan). They ran out of things to say to one another years ago, and physical intimacy is obviously out of the question.
So it’s during a production of his friend Wilkie Collins’ play, The Frozen Deep, that Dickens first lays eyes on Nelly. He’s instantly smitten as a schoolboy and cannot stop complimenting her amusingly mediocre performance. This attention doesn’t escape the eyes of Nelly’s mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), a widow of little means attempting to raise her less-than-talented daughters in an almost impossible profession. The great writer’s affection represents a possible way out for the entire family, or probable ruin if not handled with the utmost discretion.
Don’t expect any fireworks from this English Patient reunion between Fiennes and Thomas. Their scenes together are negotiations during which neither side dares declare the terms. As for how Nelly feels about all this? Well, she’s so young and starstruck she can barely be expected to consider the consequences.
Felicity Jones delivers an exquisitely internalized performance as Nelly, who’s in thrall more to the man’s writing than the man himself. He loves her more than she loves him, and the imbalance weighs on her heart. Screenwriter Abi Morgan refuses to provide the kind of dialogue scenes that spell everything out for inattentive viewers. Charles Dickens made his living with words, but the movie thrives on silences.
Fiennes and cinematographer Rob Hardy eschew the postcard-perfect Merchant Ivory tradition of quality trappings that often render these corseted costume dramas inert. This is a muddy London with a grimly overcast chill. We see the chamber pots and the frayed stitching of old clothes. The sets feel more lived-in than designed, and a harrowing midnight stroll through a grimy back alley packed with child prostitutes serves as a jarring reminder that this usually over-romanticized era wasn’t all just tea time in drawing rooms.
Since little in the movie is explained aloud and the performances so restrained, Fiennes must rely on compositions and blocking to express what the characters cannot. Far more attentive to visual storytelling than most actors who step behind the camera, Fiennes conveys the shifting interpersonal dynamics through people’s positions within the frame. It’s a sophisticated approach that many more seasoned directors have yet to master with the skill displayed here.
The Invisible Woman’s deliberate pacing and muted tone might try the patience of viewers enticed by the scandalous subject matter who are expecting a more typical Dickensian melodrama. But if you can get on the movie’s wavelength, there is great power in the stillness and in Ralph Fiennes as a major filmmaker.
The Invisible Woman
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Hollander, Joanna Scanlan. Screenplay by Abi Morgan. Directed by Ralph Fiennes. At Kendall Square and West Newton.