Discarding the Greengrass-ian shaky cam of his directorial debut, 2011’s Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes employs a magnificently classical touch for The Invisible Woman, the story of the secret love affair between Charles Dickens (Fiennes) and young actress, Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones). Using as its source material Claire Tomalin’s non-fiction study, Fiennes’ film is a tale told in flashback, as Nelly – now married and with child – remembers the affair she had with the great author when she was just 18, a relationship that began after she and her sisters, guided by her mother (Kirsten Scott Thomas), came to act alongside Charles in his playwright-friend Wilkie Collins’ (Tom Hollander) “The Frozen Deep.”
Trapped in a loveless marriage to Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), Charles sees in Nelly both vibrant beauty and deceptive intelligence, while she spies in him not only grand intellect but also a romantic desire eager to burst forth. Thus, despite their disparate positions and obligations, their feelings for each other soon blossom, even as it becomes increasingly clear that only heartbreak awaits them and their loved ones – a fact never more piercingly felt than when Catherine, on her husband’s callous orders, brings Nelly a gift from Charles that was mistakenly delivered to her.
Repeatedly returning to the adult Nelly walking furiously along a windswept beach, The Invisible Woman is poignantly attuned to its characters’ sorrow – born from a situation that has no suitable resolution – and that’s in large part thanks to Fiennes’ artistry behind the camera. From compositions that quietly speak volumes about the distance between Charles and Nelly (as well as their alternately joyous or miserable states), to edits and zooms (including a particularly amazing late one into the nape of a happy Nelly’s neck) that express the material’s roiling sentiments, his direction is both precise and passionate. Without a wasted gesture, the film situates itself so close to its protagonists that, despite the story’s 19th century Victorian-era demands for socially decorous restraint and propriety, it proves a lush, pulsating work. In its every handheld camera pan around a theater stage, static master shot of patrons at a social gathering, or calamitous edit both during and after a train crash, Fiennes communicates emotion and theme through superb aesthetic means.
Rooted in both Charles and Nelly’s fear that one can never truly know another’s heart, The Invisible Woman – bolstered by Abi Morgan’s incisive and tender script – plays out as a tragedy writ both large and intimately small. From a quick cut from Dickens turning up a lamp’s light to a shot of lively Nelly set against a bright stormy sky, to a silent sequence that segues from a two-shot of Charles and Nelly on opposite ends of the frame to painfully intimate close-ups of their barely touching mouths and hands, Fiennes conveys his characters’ shifting internal and external conditions with acute formal elegance. That, as Dickens, the illustrious actor also delivers a complex portrait of conflicted priorities and obsessions is hardly a surprise. However, Jones is a revelation, matching her illustrious co-star with a turn that burns with both suppressed yearning and despair over a situation from which she both wants to reject and yet cannot escape. Hers is a star-making performance full of subtle sorrow and strength, and in the film’s signature recurring sight of Nelly glancing over her shoulder, she gracefully captures Nelly’s tragic longing for both an impossible present and an irretrievable past.