Thursday, January 23, 2014

'Invisible Woman' shows up with slow elegance

Celebrity, gossip, longing and infidelity all go under the microscope in ' The Invisible Woman,' a gorgeously framed period piece whose focus on Charles Dickens, of all people, makes it even more attractive to the art-film crowd.

Ralph Fiennes not only plays the noted 19th century novelist with a spring in his step and idealistic spark in his eye, but directs with a much more restrained aplomb than he did with the boisterous 'Coriolanus,' his first assignment behind the camera.

The way screenwriter Abi Morgan ('Shame,' 'The Iron Lady') and Fiennes show and tell it from a biography about Dickens' young mistress, 'The Invisible Woman' herself was an aspiring actress when she met the already-famous man almost 30 years her senior.

By then, Dickens was married with 10 children, and 18-year-old Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones) still was mostly sheltered by two older sisters and a devoted mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) collectively and severely bitten by the acting bug.

In fact, after Dickens cast all four Ternans in one of his lesser plays, he ran into the quartet frequently enough to start critical tongues wagging in Victorian Era England.

Much of the story is told in flashback as Nelly, now married with children of her own, is challenged by a local pastor (John Kavanagh), himself a great admirer of Dickens' prose, to talk about her association with the late literary great.

Granted, that narrative device very slowly reveals Ternan's somewhat bleak account of the secret relationship. However, it also offers moments of brilliance. A picture-perfect rendering of a scene here (from cinematographer Rob Hardy); a compelling reading from Fiennes/Dickens there, and climactic moments showing how Nelly might have inspired a famous novel or two all lend significant and rich fabric to the piece.

Dickensian scholars might even declare, 'It's a pip!'

Check out John M. Urbancich's Critic's Choice ratings on recent releases here.)
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