Film Review: The Invisible Woman

Perhaps the most visually beautiful film of the year, Ralph Fiennes' triumphant second time at bat as a director is an intelligent and deeply moving account of a little-known but vital part of Charles Dickens' life.

The Invisible Woman, Ralph Fiennes' directorial follow-up to his Shakespeare adaptation Coriolanus, also tackles one of the great writers of English literature, Charles Dickens, but couldn't be more different. Where Coriolanus was all bluster and modishly modernized, set in a Mideast war zone for maximum if strikingly obvious "immediacy," this film stays perfectly in period and is often as still as a forest pond, and far superior.

It takes up Dickens (Fiennes) at the height of his fame, already a legend in his own time and an almost Elvis-like celebrity, as he travels about giving rapturously attended readings of his works. The Frozen Deep, a play he has co-written with author Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander, droll and lively), brings him into contact with a very young actress, Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones). She is one of three unmarried theatrical daughters of Frances (Kristin Scott Thomas), herself an actress, and slowly a romance between this great man and little thespian blooms.

Frances, although concerned for her daughter's reputation with the married Dickens, sees the liaison as a way out of a sketchy, not-that-gifted player's existence for the girl. On his part, Dickens has a brood of children and a long-suffering wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), who is herself far from a fool.

With a superb technical and design team, Fiennes has created one of the most beautifully authentic period films ever made. It's bathed in an irresistibly warm glow, far better than the downright ugly visuals which marred Spielberg's Lincoln, set at roughly the same time, and the sets and costumes are magnificent while looking completely lived-in and never drawing undue attention to themselves. One exhilarating shot of Nelly at the horse races in Manchester, silhouetted slightly above the crowd against a clear sky, must have been cadged from some period painting, and could very well be the most magical movie moment of 2013. But the film is awash in treasurable images: a strolling Dickens cutting a swath through an emerald field of grass; a forlorn Nelly hiding in a closet from her sisters; a horrific yet strangely pictorial train wreck; scenes of her walking in profile alone on a vast beach in the "present-day" scenes which frame her romance with Dickens told in flashback, now herself married and desperately trying to shake off an unforgettable past.

And, for once, a gorgeous frame does not surround dramatic hollowness, for Abi Morgan has written a sensitively literate screenplay and Fiennes' exquisitely modulated direction brings out its every nuance in a febrile way that makes you understand exactly the stifling decorum of the period, as well as the serpentinely sly ways passion was able to rear its head. As an actor, he makes a magnificently convincing Dickens, with an alert intelligence and energy, as well as a hushed but highly moving gravitas which recalls the achievement of his countryman, Daniel Day Lewis, as Lincoln. (These are anything but mummified portraits of Great Men a la Paul Muni, proving that it really does take great actors to play great men.) His reading of the death of Ham from David Copperfield is soul-stirringly dramatic and—expressed through the most economical of means, a faint grimace or wince of the eyes—the pain he feels over both Nelly and Catherine is achingly real.

In turn, Jones creates probably the most elevated portrait of a groupie ever filmed. Enthusing about Dickens' Bleak House, which she says has supplanted Little Dorrit in her affection, this obsessed fan is one brainy beauty. And beautiful she is, with Fiennes' camera fixated on the nape of her neck throughout (like Hitchcock with Kim Novak in Vertigo), often recalling George Frederic Watts' famous portrait of the young Ellen Terry. This fleshy-faced, slightly pouting pre-Raphaelite angel is quietly riveting, whether fetishistically fingering Dickens' pen and paper on his desk, or finally unleashing her emotions in a breathtaking torrent.

Scanlan, a beneficent hillock in a hoop skirt initially, makes the ever-wary Mrs. Dickens—spouse to a star and all its attendant tiresomenesses—intensely human; it's the very kind of put-upon wife role that traditionally wins supporting Oscars, and in Scanlan's case it would be deserved. (A brief moment of Dickens embarrassedly catching her in the nude says volumes about their marriage.) Scott Thomas is also excellent, desperately trying to maintain the proper Victorian propriety in a profession which endlessly challenges that. The sequences with her and her daughters are filmed with a luminously admiring affection by Fiennes, who obviously adores them. A scene of the women on laundry day, fretting over fraying fabric and singing "The Last Rose of Summer," has a deep charm, as does so much of this film, which one hopes won't be completely passed over at awards time in favor of noisier, flashier entertainments without so much as a fraction of this one's delicacy and depth.