NOW YOU SEE HER ... Felicity Jones plays Charles Dickens’ longtime mistress, Nelly Ternan, in Ralph Fienne’s period piece.
City Paper grade: A-
Surprises are the last thing you expect from a period piece directed by Ralph Fiennes. But, as he did in transplanting Shakespeare’s Coriolanus to present-day Bosnia, Fiennes upends convention in relaying the story of Charles Dickens (Fiennes) and his longtime mistress, Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones). But rather than Coriolanus’ shot across the bow, Fiennes’ second directorial outing begins in a relatively familiar, though well-executed, style, with a married, middle-aged Nelly reflecting on her relationship with the late author. Dickens is a full-fledged celebrity, one whose fame allows him to write and act in plays, though readings of his serialized novels draw greater crowds. Nelly hails from a theatrical family, and though she’s less eager to act than her siblings, Dickens declares that “she has something” — although that something, as it turns out, is not a talent for the stage. Even though he keeps his affair with Nelly secret, Dickens is coldly cruel to his wife (a magnificent, if too-briefly-seen Joanna Scanlan), boarding up the doorway between their separate rooms and eventually distancing himself from her through a letter to the editor.
Once Dickens’ relationship with Nelly begins in earnest — though still not in public — The Invisible Woman shifts dramatically, in every sense. As Dickens and Nelly retreat from public view, the other characters drop away, and the camera frames them in tight, gleaming closeups that evoke J.M.W. Turner paintings. Fiennes and Jones’ performances grow more hushed as well — more precise, as if their physical and emotional intimacy allows them to clarify, even purify, themselves.
The Invisible Woman has other surprises in store, less in terms of plot than structure and style, and it firmly establishes that Fiennes is as great a director as he is an actor.
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