As it turns out, Charles Dickens was just another middle-aged celebrity cliché who jumped a 17-year-old at the first opportunity and whose amazing story can now finally be told! Or so is framed this Ralph Fiennes directed/starring vehicle The Invisible Woman.
I suppose it’s a fitting punishment, to have penned some of the great works of the English Language, only to be reduced to a late-life dalliance some 150 years later. I guess after nearly 70s years of Hollywood (and Borehamwood) of squeezing your literary output for material—and you have to go back to 1946 to find a year that didn’t feature a video version of some Dickens story—it was only inevitable that they would start squeezing your personal life as well.
Or perhaps I’m being too cynical.
Probably. Actors and showbiz types being fascinated by actors and showbiz types from the 19th century is only natural.
Thing is? It’s not fascinating. It’s utterly banal. Where Fiennes debut picture, Coriolanus, was a brave and challenging take on a lesser known Shakespeare play, this is, well, sort of Lifetime movie material. Well, Lifetime plus amazing actors (but more on that in a bit).
In a nutshell: 40-something Dickens (Fiennes) catches the eye of adoring teen fan Nelly (Felicity Jones, Like Crazy). It seems like she’s quite smitten, but of course, he’s married, ancient and she’s a virginal Victorian lass, despite being an actress.
Dickens is then seen oh-so-casually arranging his schedule to run into her, say, by walking to London from his house in the country. Everyone is pretty much aware of the situation, even before Dickens and Nelly are, including Mrs. Dickens (Joanna Scanlon, The Girl with the Pearl Earring) and Nelly’s mom (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Nelly’s mother demurs at first, fearing for her daughter’s reputation but, in perhaps the only really interesting twist in the movie—that you should probably stop reading about if you don’t want to be spoiled, even though it’s only a 20 second bit in a two-hour movie—in this only really novel angle, her mother begins to encourage the possible affair on the basis of Nelly being a really, truly horrible actress with no real prospects in show business, apart from what Dickens might be able to help her with.
As for the rest of it, the part that isn’t “older dude hooks up with then falls in love with much younger woman”, deals with the stigma of being a mistress in the 19th century, and the dialogue might just as well have come out of the 1960s, or the 1930s or the 1880s or any of the other time periods when non-traditional relationships struggled against the tyranny of monogamy.
It’s woefully pedestrian.
Still, great things come from trite stories. Shakespeare did wonders with the trite. Valdemort could be considered trite and Fiennes did wonders with the dark wizard.
This, though? Nuffin’. There’s an implication that Nelly was Dickens muse for works like Great Expectations from this period, but the movie doesn’t really sell it. It’s all sort of “No, I shouldn’t. No. No. No. Well, okay. Crud. I really shouldn’t have.”
It just teases a bunch of stuff without ever coming into focus. Nelly should be the centerpiece of the film and—I mean, if you want a good drama—she should be completely infusing his work and his thoughts. And, in fairness, Dickens’ actions here fit the bill, but we never actually see much actual passion.
Which brings up another point: As you might expect from a film directed by an actor there are long moments where nothing happens but acting. Thing is, though, these are usually middle-shots with the actors in shadow. We’re left to glean how they must feel from their posture.
Not that it’s hard to figure out, but if you’re going to rest the camera so the actors can act for everyone, a Shatnerian approach beats a Fincherian one.
It’s all so low-key. Long, mysterious walks on the beach with gazing off into the distance.
It’s well made, of course. Competent, even proficient, in most regards. But some of the artistic choices make it difficult to recommend. The Boy was similarly unimpressed. We didn’t hate it; we didn’t even dislike it. It just didn’t take off.