The Invisible Woman

Directed by Ralph Fiennes

Starring Felicity Jones and Ralph Fiennes
In UK cinemas February 7th, 2014

by Katharine Fry

Ralph Fiennes’ second directorial outing The Invisible Woman is an uneasy affair, both in content and in style.  The story unfolds in true Dickensian fashion with the weather setting the tone of each scene. We begin following married schoolteacher, Nelly Wharton Robinson, as she paces the Margate shore, plunging into the strong coastal winds that must match the strength of her troubled thoughts. A kindly reverend asks if he may join her one day and attempt to unburden her but she is resistant. She returns to school to help her pupils with a play, The Frozen Deep penned by Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens. It seems she has taken liberties with certain scenes and her husband boasts that she may, due to her ‘childhood friendship’ with Dickens.

We cast back in time and find Dickens himself, in more rain naturally, it’s the dramatic north after all, arriving in Manchester to help Collins stage the first production of The Frozen Deep. Enter Nelly, her two older sisters and their mother (Kristin Scott Thomas – apparently too old to play Fiennes’ love interest though I’m fairly sure they have both aged the same number of years since The English Patient), a family of actors who seem to infuse Dickens’ with the energy and dynamism lacking in his own family life. Our rare glimpses of Mrs Dickens show us a tired, portly woman who tends to Dickens’ needs and caprices unnoticed and unthanked. The fact that she has borne him ten children, which rather explains her portly state of affairs, and supported him through his rise to fame seem utterly unremarkable to Dickens whose eye quickly falls on, you guessed it, Nelly.

Nelly is herself more reluctant to embrace a possible affair and is appalled when she is introduced to Wilkie’s ‘invisible’ mistress, a role Dickens seems to be intending for her. Her pragmatic mother makes it clear that her youngest daughter cannot act so she must survive by her other ‘talents’ and, of course, Nelly relents. Her life in the shadows begins.

The Invisible Woman reveals cruelty to women at every turn, they are the mercy of every double standard and the caprice of any man, be they a once beloved wife or a new plaything. The treatment of these invisibles is shown in many an unsettling scene, which I shan’t spoil with full descriptions save for one: Nelly and Dickens are involved in a train wreck. He, very graciously, goes to see if she is still alive while denying any acquaintance with her then goes to rescue his writing before looking to any other survivors. It seems everyone is invisible when you burn with genius.

The story is told in typical period style, with dialogue, colour, style and sound all treading familiar territory. So far, so Dickens. However, the film fails in its pacing. Where television renderings of Austen et al ratchet up the tension with a look, a neck, an elbow, a lock of hair before the lovers finally come together, The Invisible Woman plods dully through parlour and theatre. The only heat comes in actual moments of passionate embrace while the rest is as exciting as damp laundry. Ralph also manages to over-Ralph and spent much of the film annoying me with his various intensities. And then there’s the bugbear of HD. I’ve always believed period drama should be a bit fuzzy round the edges. All this super sharp super focus allows nothing to be invisible.

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