TIFF 2013 | The Invisible Woman (Ralph Fiennes, UK)—Special Presentation


By Angelo Muredda

While Coriolanus seemed designed to show us that Ralph Fiennes could direct as well as star in Shakespeare, The Invisible Woman scans as a cannier power play, a consistently underrated actor-director’s audition for high-toned costume dramas about major historical figures (Charles Dickens, here). As a director’s portfolio, it’s not so bad: certainly Fiennes proves himself more capable of this sort of middlebrow period recreation than fellow countryman Tom Hooper, who never met a pair of nostrils he didn’t want to jam a camera in. Fiennes’ framing is more classical, the better to take in the art director’s impeccable recreation of the drawing rooms, commercial theatres, and lecture halls of Victorian London, where a still-married Dickens (Fiennes) begins a tentative romance with actress Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones).

The title, borrowed from Claire Tomalin’s biography of Ternan, suggests a spotlight on the ruined other woman, which The Iron Lady scripter Abi Morgan is all too happy to deliver in a number of on-the-nose monologues about men’s versus women’s freedom. But Fiennes’ attentions lie elsewhere: for one, he’s too keen on old Boz as a bon vivant and benevolent god to let him play second fiddle to his less proven female co-lead. He’s also got his filmmaking chops to prove, in grandstanding set pieces like a sweaty courtly dance that bows to Visconti, and the odd anthropological cutaway of housekeepers folding laundry. These asides are well-observed, but they’re ultimately distractions, relegating poor Ternan (and Jones, a warm but under-utilized presence) to the background of her own story.