In the U.S., we have the Phoenix family for artsy-fartsy, but super talented, Hollywood relatives. In the UK, there’s the Fiennes family. And just like the Phoenixes have River and Joaquin for two popular brothers, the Fiennes have Ralph and Joseph. Recently, Joaquin’s film Her debuted in theaters, and this week, we have Ralph’s acting and directorial efforts with The Invisible Woman. When he isn’t correcting the pronunciation of his first name (actually ‘Rafe’), Fiennes has made a reputation for being one of the most impressive actors in cinema, and still one of the most underrated. Over the last three decades, Fiennes has gained two Academy Award nominations for Schindler’s List (1993) and The English Patient (1996), as well as co-starred in a few cult classics like Strange Days (1995) and In Bruges (2008), and portrayed Harry Potter’s arch nemesis Voldemort for the hero’s last five films. Now The Invisible Woman marks Ralph’s second go at directing since his first experiment, Coriolanus, in 2011.
Fiennes plays Charles Dickens as the most famous writer of England in 1857. The film centers during a time when an acting family named Ternan, consisting of daughters Nelly (Felicity Jones), Maria (Perdita Weeks) and Fanny (Amanda Hale), and their mother Frances (Kristin Scott Thomas) are hired to perform with Dickens in a production of The Frozen Deep by his friend Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander). Throughout their time together it becomes apparent that though Nelly isn’t the most talented of the sisters, she is the most dedicated and in awe of Dickens as an author and person. The writer himself appears to be in a rather unhappy, one-sided marriage with his wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan).
To escape his frustration and feed his intrigue with Nelly, Dickens begins socializing and spending time privately with the young actress. Soon both friends realize their feelings have grown passionate and rumors begin circulating around the entertainment community of their relationship. Nelly’s mother and sisters worry for her because of her age and naivety, and there’s still the issue of Mrs. Dickens on Charles’ end.
The Invisible Woman reunites Fiennes and Thomas seventeen years after romancing each other in The English Patient, and features a cameo by Michelle Fairley of Game of Thrones. Visually, the film isn’t really that much different from any other English period piece we’ve seen during Oscar season. There are the accents, the poofy costumes and the doomed romances. The actors are of course much more attractive than their real counterparts. The exception being Mrs. Dickens, who is portrayed as the less good looking and happy of the couple. Though she isn’t the lead’s actual love interest, it’s refreshing to see a married couple who aren’t stereotypically young and beautiful on screen.
As is the case with most biopics, liberties are made with the real life accuracy of the characters and events for the sake of entertainment. Those who are familiar with Charles Dickens will notice that some of his personality and motives have been made more redeemable for the audience than might have been the case in reality. Fiennes leads the film in his usual grand, yet controlled style and does manage to make Dickens a likable character for two hours. Jones is a pretty face with a meek modesty about her that works for Nelly, and makes us concerned for her decisions and the life around her. Thomas is always a pleasure to see on film, and only makes us wish she had a few more scenes with Fiennes to see the two powerhouse actors play off each other more. Fairley’s appearance is brief, but brings up one of the more taboo aspects of that era: living in sin. For a brief moment we’re taken back to a time when it was normal to be judged for living together out of wedlock. What’s interesting is how the youngest character in the movie is angry over it, rather than just naïve. Dickens is the ignorant one, while the teenager is making the important decisions in the past and present.
Fiennes’ non-linear style and use of breaking the fourth wall gives the film an intriguing edge and catches the audience’s attention quickly. When he went all out with his first directed film being a modern set Shakespeare adaptation, viewers paused and were reluctant, but here with The Invisible Woman, Fiennes is in more familiar territory. Though he can pull off contemporary movies, period pieces have become almost like a signature for him as with his experience with the genre for two decades. Here the actors look the parts, the tone is appropriate and the audience escapes into Dickens’ and Nelly’s minds thoroughly.