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The Invisible Woman

For a movie about Charles Dickens, The Invisible Woman is more likely to remind you of the novels of Thomas Hardy than any of those written by the man who so vividly depicted urban life of his day. The film opens with a wide shot of a empty field into which gradually enters a solitary woman. She is Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), a middle-aged schoolteacher and mother. But this was not always her life: For 13 years, beginning when she was 18, her life was lived in the shadows as the mistress of the great writer, in an era when such behavior if made public would have ruined both their lives.

Alternating between Nelly’s later life and her first meetings with Dickens (played by Ralph Fiennes, who also directed), The Invisible Woman is an examination of repressed passion. When they meet, Nelly is the youngest (and truth be told least talented) of a family of actresses, at the time a reviled profession. He is at the height of his fame, a figure revered by the public for his compassionate exposés of social ills. He is married to Catherine (Joanna Scanlan,), who has borne him 10 children but settled into a role as mother and housekeeper that does not satisfy his energies, either physically or intellectually.

You may find yourself surprised to be siding with the dowdy Catherine as the film proceeds, but that’s not accidental. Working from a screenplay by Abigail Morgan (The Iron Lady, the miniseries The Hour), Fiennes tells his story with subtle strokes that proceed slowly but tellingly. (It’s quite the opposite of the in-your-face style of his first effort behind the camera, Coriolanus.) Keenly aware of the social proprieties binding him, after meeting Nelly at a theatrical performance in rural Margate, Dickens pursues her in a manner so veiled that he might even be pulling the wool over his own eyes. When his intentions become clear Nelly is equally reluctant to proceed, and the accomplishment of the film is in the way it moves forward with an inevitability that is almost noirish. It’s a story you might think could be left for home viewing, but (despite some beautiful photography of England’s eastern seaside), it is a demonstration of how small details are best appreciated on a screen that is larger than life.

Watch the trailer for The Invisible Woman

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