The Invisible Woman
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 20th April 2014
The great actor and now often-times director, Ralph Fiennes, nearly burst a blood vessel playing Coriolanus, his previous effort at taking the lead role as well as running the show. In The Invisible Woman Fiennes tackles another great literary hero, Charles Dickens, and once again delivers a compelling performance while exercising a restraint seldom seen by stars-who-direct.
Though everyone knows his name, few may know that Dickens’ private life battled a few best and worst times of its own. Ostensibly happily married and father to a herd, Dickens’ eye was apparently turned by a young actress he encountered during a local theatre production (the play written, incidentally, by his mate Wilkie Collins, played predictably but delightfully by the irrepressible Tom Hollander). Dickens takes young Nelly Ternan into his heart under the watchful eye of her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), but naturally the path to this sort of forbidden love cannot run smoothly.
It’s a love story template we know well, but thankfully Fiennes demands excellent work from his cast who deliver smooth dialogue and nuanced performances enhanced by the pretty costume design and some beautiful photography. As young Nelly, Felicity Jones (who worked with Fiennes in Cemetery Junction) shows she has blossomed into an accomplished actress, adept at playing the ingénue as well as the tortured older soul whose reminiscences form the basis of the story.
Above all, there is something fascinating about seeing a household name from the 1850s as he was in real-life – mobbed at the races like a modern-day celebrity; cooed over by readers who debate the detail of his greatest works; breaking social conventions by fraternising with unmarried couples. With universally strong performances propelled through a pacy narrative, The Invisible Woman should not be allowed to slip away unseen.