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The Invisible Woman 

Movie Review

“The original fault,” John Berryman mused in the prologue to his Sonnets, “was whether wickedness was soluble in art.” I mention this because it’s essentially the question posed by Ralph Fiennes in his second directorial effort, The Invisible Woman (opening at the Savoy Theater this Friday), an impressively realized adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s 1990 book of the same name. Like the Sonnets, it examines an affair between an anonymous woman and a writer who’s both very famous and very married.

The writer, played splendidly by Fiennes, is Charles Dickens. No doubt the phrase “sexy beast” does not immediately spring to mind. Yet this is the movie’s chief surprise and supreme achievement: Rather than giving its subject the Merchant and Ivory treatment, it brings convincingly to life an incarnation of the familiar figure that’s thrillingly multidimensional. Dickens emerges as a man who is, for all practical purposes, a rock star.

Social reformer, philanthropist, celebrated public reader, amateur magician, playwright, theatrical impresario and very likely the most universally recognizable artist of his time (before TV, never mind YouTube), Dickens was publicly worshipped while being privately kinda wicked. Tomalin’s revelation was that this paragon of family values and father of 10 carried on a clandestine affair with a woman nearly 30 years his junior for the last 13 years of his life.

The name of the “invisible woman” was Nelly Ternan. The two met shortly before her 18th birthday. She’s portrayed by the British actress Felicity Jones with such subtlety, intelligence and delicacy that it’s stupefying that Jones didn’t wind up part of the awards-season conversation. Way back in September, many an industry pundit expected her to.

Variety’s Scott Foundas, for example, predicted, “This exceptionally classy Sony Classics release should romance highbrow art-house auds during the competitive Christmas frame, while generating awards talk for Jones, Fiennes and an excellent tech package.” He wasn’t totally wrong. Jones didn’t receive an Oscar nom last week. Her dress did. The film’s single recognition was for Achievement in Costume Design.

That’s less a reflection on this smart and affecting film than on the Academy, of course, which — I’m not making this up — lavished Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa and The Lone Ranger with an unbelievable three nominations between them. The rules allow for 10 Best Picture candidates, and, for some reason, only nine movies were recognized. This is the picture that should’ve been No. 10.

What a nuanced rumination on love and fame (coincidentally, a Berryman title) it is. The script by Abi Morgan (Shame) incisively tracks the course of this complex relationship, illuminating the emotions and motivations of key players with exceptional depth. (Bonus feature: Fans of The English Patient are treated to a reunion between Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays the young woman’s conflicted mother.)

Jones does an uncanny job of conveying her character’s evolution from starstruck ingénue to resigned mistress, a casualty of Victorian social codes. For his part, Fiennes has never been better, creating a compelling, completely credible Dickens down to the minutest historical details — from his reported approachability to his bottomless reserves of energy.

The real invisible woman, by the way, turns out to be the great man’s long-suffering wife, Catherine. Joanna Scanlan is heartbreaking in the role — portly, unsophisticated and eventually separated from her husband, quite literally, when he has a wall built dividing the family home in two.

“Every human creature is a profound secret to every other,” the author observes to Ternan the night they meet. See this remarkable movie and determine for yourself whether the secret Dickens kept from the world was profound or a touch wicked, and whether his immortal creations mitigate the damage and redeem the man. It’s a tale of two flawed, fascinating creatures for which you should have great expectations.

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Rick Kisonak

Rick Kisonak

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Rick Kisonak is a film reviewer for Seven Days.

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What others are saying (9)

Indy Week The secret life of a great writer The Invisible Woman is the story of the teenage girl for whose charms Charles Dickens broke up his family. by David Fellerath 01/22/2014
Boise Weekly Not-So-Great Expectations Now playing at The Flicks by George Prentice 01/22/2014
Westword The Invisible Woman is attuned to its characters' sorrow A tale of love complicated — if not thwarted — by prior responsibilities, intractable barriers and the rigid high-society norms that frustrate its Victorian characters' attempts to live as they so desperately want, The Invisible Woman finds Ralph Fiennes proving as adept behind the camera as he is in front... by Nick Schager 01/16/2014
6 more reviews...
Colorado Springs Independent Ralph Fiennes portrays a lascivious, but somehow lovable Dickens in Invisible Woman The emotional savagery that runs throughout the film is often stomach-churning. by Tricia Olszewski 02/12/2014
Memphis Flyer Secret Lovers Charles Dickens and his mistress, The Invisible Woman. by Greg Akers 01/23/2014
Creative Loafing Atlanta Invisible Woman tells of Charles Dickens' hidden lover Ralph Fiennes directs and stars in this Victorian era period piece by Andrew Alexander 01/21/2014
Portland Mercury Bland Expectations Ralph Fiennes directs and stars in a slow-moving look at Charles Dickens' love life. by Alison Hallett 01/22/2014
East Bay Express The Invisible Woman I was Charles Dickens' love thang. by Kelly Vance 01/15/2014

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