By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Maybe Ralph Fiennes, who plays Charles Dickens in “The Invisible Woman,” a quasi-biopic about the legendary author’s secret relationship with his much younger mistress, Nelly (née Ellen Ternan), shouldn’t have directed himself. But that’s just one thought in attempting to explain the numerous inadequacies that make this film a disappointing, slow boat to rather mundane divulgences.
Succinctly deduced after the screening by a woman seated behind me, who certainly wasn’t at a loss for words before the reels rolled, “They could have told it all in fifteen minutes.” Oh, well. While I was left desiring much more about one of the literary lions most influential to my choice of vocational torture, perhaps I’ll somehow find benefit from said astute critic’s complete vacation plans for the spring and summer.
Although Abi Morgan’s screenplay based on the book by Claire Tomalin gives it the old college try, the pre-media-ubiquitous 19th Century made keeping a secret, even a juicy one, somewhat possible. It isn’t until the last of Charles Dickens’s children has passed on (in 1933) that the full breadth and width of the previously hushed whispers are amplified.
Adding quandary to dearth of facts, we are left to decide the ultimate significance, historically and literarily, of this affaire de coeur that was instrumental to the legendary writer’s divorce from his wife, Catherine, played by Joanna Scanlan. Granted, it was important if not completely earthshaking to all parties concerned. However, inured as we are today to an entire portion of the press devoted to regularly regaling us with sexual scandal, by comparison this cold case of infidelity isn’t revived beyond lukewarm status.
Agreed, scholars of the written word have no doubt found some value in the theory that Nelly, portrayed by pretty Felicity Jones, was the inspiration for Estella in “Great Expectations,” Lucy Manette in “A Tale of Two Cities,” etc., etc. So, are we to then assume that Dickens wouldn’t have written these novels if he had never known Nelly?
We are thus directed into that philosophical, “what if?” abyss that goes far beyond any conjectures concerning the afflatus power of lovers. It’s the stuff superbly dissected and hypothesized in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1947), where George Bailey gets to see what the world would be like had he never been born.
But where does it stop….with us wondering if there still would be a “David Copperfield” even if Mrs. Dickens hadn’t given birth to Charles? More frightening yet, what great novels, discoveries or global horrors never came to be because this or that happened, or didn’t? It’s enough to furrow Solomon’s brow, let alone ours.
Considering the aforementioned failings, I suggest the director, faced with a paucity of plot and details, might have populated his script with information about Dickens that we do know. Surely there’s no lack of interesting notions to relate here…things about the era, or even the writing process itself. But aside from suggesting the arduous purity of composing a bestseller with a dip pen, there isn’t much here either. I can vouch that staring at a blank page for a seeming eternity is neither entertaining nor elucidating.
All of which leaves us to rely on that one item of human interest that sells no matter the product with which it is associated. Yep, right above hotcakes on any marketer’s list of sure financial panaceas is good old lust. Unfortunately, while I assume that Nelly and Charles made the most of the disgrace they purportedly fashioned behind closed doors, you wouldn’t know it from this subtle treatment. Perchance it’s all that time it would take to hang up those endless layers of Victorian duds that precludes any profound steaminess.
Instead, we get bushels of hushed rationalization so popular in the Age of Innocence, and bunches of vague longing just slightly more sophisticated than the paralyzed stare etched by contemporary boy and girl adolescents at their first dance. We appreciate the reserved tone, and yet, surely there must be some dramatically suitable middle ground between painful modesty and the latest Miley Cyrus tossing herself on the pyre of virgin sacrifice.
Further obfuscating matters, ambient mutterings in acoustically-challenged anterooms, voiced in British accents unappreciative of the American ears that might attempt to eavesdrop, make more tedious an already slow pace. While Mr. Fiennes establishes a credible aura of greatness for his celebrated scribe, and Miss Jones is reasonably heartrending as the compromised title courtesan, their efforts cannot ameliorate a deficient script ineffectively directed.
Hence, like any number of the novelist’s iconic waifs, we are left wanting…thankfully not for sustenance as we have doubtless purchased the giant bucket of popcorn advertised as the concession stand’s “Best Buy!” But rather, because “The Invisible Woman” lacks the properly arranged elements that bode for a rosy, moviegoing destiny, we are rendered bereft of great expectations.
“The Invisible Woman,” rated R, is a Sony Pictures Classics release directed by Ralph Fiennes and stars Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones and Kristin Scott Thomas. Running time: 111 minutes
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