Revered British actor and director Ralph Fiennes returns to the London Film Festival this year with his second feature, The Invisible Woman (2013). Telling the story of the ‘other woman’ in Charles Dickens’ life, Nelly Ternan, Fiennes appears to have improved his directing abilities little since Coriolanus (2011), offering up a tawdry biopic that’s as stiff and stifling as a Victorian collar – and as frumpy as Queen Vic herself. Once again, Fiennes finds it only suitable to cast himself in the lead, this time as Dickens (ticking off yet another great historical figure), whilst the charming but miscast Felicity Jones plays the heroine of the piece.
We begin in Margate, 1883, as a black-clad Nell (Jones) stomps across the bleak sand dunes, returning to a boarding school that’s busy preparing for a performance of one of Dickens’ lesser-known plays, entitled No Thoroughfare. We then cut to Manchester, some years earlier. Here we find Dickens (Fiennes) and Wilkie Collins (the charming Tom Hollander) preparing for the same play, casting a younger and much chirpier Nell, who finds herself starstruck in the presence of the great English author. What follows is a flaccid dramatisation of just how the relationship between the writer and the naive actress develops. Of course, they fall in love, but must also predictably contend with the arch constraints of Victorian society.
Whilst the screenplay for The Invisible Woman is provided by the usually reliable Abi Morgan (based on Claire Tomalin’s novel of the same name), Fiennes’ sophomore directorial outing remains little more than Dickens fetishism. The tone of the piece is melodramatic, distracting from the more interesting themes of the drama, pushed further into cliché by Ilan Eshkeri’s dire, highly-strung score. Rather than allowing the focus to fall on Ternan, it quickly becomes all about Fiennes’ Dickens – an understandable decision from a commercial standpoint, but disappointing at an artistic level. A dynamic is established to show why Dickens could never fully commit to either his family nor his lover – he was too infatuated with his own fame and fortune.
A scene that shows this with particular strength involves Dickens’ wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), with whom he maintained a sexless marriage. Catherine warns Nell that whilst she may believe Dickens loves her, he will never give up his public for love. Sadly, however, The Invisible Woman’s most interesting themes are nevertheless sidelined in favour of dull, candle-lit discussions, in which we hear the stilted Fiennes and Jones uttering whispered words of forbidden love to one another. It appears once more that Fiennes is yet to chance upon a directing project that would allow him to fully concentrate on the story at hand. For the moment, at least, he still appears overly concerned with giving that star performance.
The 57th BFI London Film Festival takes place from 9-20 October, 2013. For more of our LFF 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.