“The original fault,” John Berryman mused in the prologue to his Sonnets, “was whether wickedness was soluble in art.” I mention this because it’s essentially the question posed by Ralph Fiennes in his second directorial effort, The Invisible Woman (opening at the Savoy Theater this Friday), an impressively realized adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s 1990 book of the same name. Like the Sonnets, it examines an affair between an anonymous woman and a writer who’s both very famous and very married.
The writer, played splendidly by Fiennes, is Charles Dickens. No doubt the phrase “sexy beast” does not immediately spring to mind. Yet this is the movie’s chief surprise and supreme achievement: Rather than giving its subject the Merchant and Ivory treatment, it brings convincingly to life an incarnation of the familiar figure that’s thrillingly multidimensional. Dickens emerges as a man who is, for all practical purposes, a rock star.
Social reformer, philanthropist, celebrated public reader, amateur magician, playwright, theatrical impresario and very likely the most universally recognizable artist of his time (before TV, never mind YouTube), Dickens was publicly worshipped while being privately kinda wicked. Tomalin’s revelation was that this paragon of family values and father of 10 carried on a clandestine affair with a woman nearly 30 years his junior for the last 13 years of his life.
The name of the “invisible woman” was Nelly Ternan. The two met shortly before her 18th birthday. She’s portrayed by the British actress Felicity Jones with such subtlety, intelligence and delicacy that it’s stupefying that Jones didn’t wind up part of the awards-season conversation. Way back in September, many an industry pundit expected her to.
Variety’s Scott Foundas, for example, predicted, “This exceptionally classy Sony Classics release should romance highbrow art-house auds during the competitive Christmas frame, while generating awards talk for Jones, Fiennes and an excellent tech package.” He wasn’t totally wrong. Jones didn’t receive an Oscar nom last week. Her dress did. The film’s single recognition was for Achievement in Costume Design.
That’s less a reflection on this smart and affecting film than on the Academy, of course, which — I’m not making this up — lavished Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa and The Lone Ranger with an unbelievable three nominations between them. The rules allow for 10 Best Picture candidates, and, for some reason, only nine movies were recognized. This is the picture that should’ve been No. 10.
What a nuanced rumination on love and fame (coincidentally, a Berryman title) it is. The script by Abi Morgan (Shame) incisively tracks the course of this complex relationship, illuminating the emotions and motivations of key players with exceptional depth. (Bonus feature: Fans of The English Patient are treated to a reunion between Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays the young woman’s conflicted mother.)
Jones does an uncanny job of conveying her character’s evolution from starstruck ingénue to resigned mistress, a casualty of Victorian social codes. For his part, Fiennes has never been better, creating a compelling, completely credible Dickens down to the minutest historical details — from his reported approachability to his bottomless reserves of energy.
The real invisible woman, by the way, turns out to be the great man’s long-suffering wife, Catherine. Joanna Scanlan is heartbreaking in the role — portly, unsophisticated and eventually separated from her husband, quite literally, when he has a wall built dividing the family home in two.
“Every human creature is a profound secret to every other,” the author observes to Ternan the night they meet. See this remarkable movie and determine for yourself whether the secret Dickens kept from the world was profound or a touch wicked, and whether his immortal creations mitigate the damage and redeem the man. It’s a tale of two flawed, fascinating creatures for which you should have great expectations.