Judge Gordon Sullivan's review is three days' output for Charles Dickens.
Our review of The Invisible Man: The Legacy Collection, published October 19th, 2004, is also available.
Charles Dickens was the most famous writer in the world. His greatest story was the one he could never tell.
Indulge me in a bit of math: Charles Dickens wrote fourteen major novels in the years between 1836 and 1870 (when he died). Together, they create a total word count of 3.8 million words. That means he averaged 311 words a day, every day, rain or shine. That's just the major novels, which doesn't include "A Christmas Carol," his voluminous correspondence, and the journalism, short stories, and plays. He also travelled extensively, had ten children, and was engaged in various political causes. Whatever you think of Dickens' work, his work ethic is admirable. If, on top of that, you tell me that he had time to have a mistress late in life, it's frankly shocking he found the time. That's the subject of The Invisible Woman, a drama that focuses on the late-career relationship between Dickens and a young actress. It's also a fine follow-up to Coriolanus for director/star Ralph Fiennes.
Facts of the Case
Nelly (Felicity Jones, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) loves the work of Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes, Coriolanus), and when her participation as an actress in one of his plays lets her meet the object of her fascination, the two begin an affair. Things are complicated on Dickens' side by a loveless marriage and the need to preserve his reputation at the height of his fame (and the height of his money-making ability as a public figure paid to appear and read from his work). Though he loves the attention of this young woman, she is torn as well, forced to live secretly as his mistress.
The Invisible Woman succeeds by throwing a number of balls in the air and keeping them juggling for all 111 minutes. The film could have been an airless excuse in costume porn, two hours of empty "drama" surrounding a famous author. Throw in a dash of scandal into a life we are at least dimly aware of—though I doubt many could cite more than a handful of biographical facts about Dickens, "A Christmas Carol" is familiar enough—and you've got the average Masterpiece-style costume drama.
Not so with The Invisible Woman. Here we get characters who are conflicted, multidimensional, and ultimately repugnant and sympathetic at the same time. Dickens is a towering genius of the novel, able to wow crowds both in America and the Continent. That has not brought him happiness, nor a romantic marriage. We sympathize with him when he finds himself attracted to the bright spark he sees in Nelly, and though it's obviously physical, there's a sense that he just wants to connect with another human. Through Nelly's eyes, we see that Dickens isn't a saint, but a man, a man who can be cruel and vicious.
Similarly, it would be easy to paint Nelly as either the wide-eyed and naive waif who enters the nefarious world of celebrity or as the conniving climber who wants to attach herself to the famous man of letters. Instead, she's a bit of both. She genuinely admires the man who gave the world Bleak House, but she's also very comfortable with being a "kept woman" to him. Until, that is, she isn't, and as she slowly gets to see more of Dickens and spends more time in the shadows, her dissatisfaction grows. The film is told mostly in flashbacks from her point-of-view, and this technique creates a surprising amount of suspense.
Then you have all the historical interest: celebrity culture in the mid-nineteenth century, Dickens' own habits, and the parallels we can draw to contemporary culture. This gives The Invisible Woman interest beyond the usual obsession with period detail we find in other historical dramas.
Of course The Invisible Woman gets all the historical stuff right. Even if you care nothing for Dickens or his love life, The Invisible Woman offers 111 minutes that fans of historical costumes will love. Ralph Fiennes seems to get pretty free rein, and here he uses it to put the most beautiful material he can in front of the camera. There's a reason this film was nominated for an Academy Award for costuming. On top of that, the whole film is beautifully shot, with everything painted in a warm glow that both signals the historical nature of the material while also being simply gorgeous to look at.
Finally, I almost feel I don't have to say it, but The Invisible Woman is filled with excellent performances. Fiennes knows how to give a good performance, and as Dickens he's commanding—the genius is there, but so is the cruelty. Felicity Jones does a fine job embodying the spark that attracts Dickens, while also not turning her into either a perfect angel or an empty beauty. Kristen Scott Thomas deserves special mention as Nelly's mother, who is complicit in the affair but also worried about her daughter's prospects.
The Invisible Woman (Blu-ray) has a 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer that is generally strong. The image is intentionally a bit softly lit in places, but detail is high and black levels stay consistent and deep for all but the most dimly lit scenes. Colors are warm and well-saturated as well. The DTS-HD 5.1 surround track features clean and clear dialogue and a restrained take on atmospherics and music.
The extras start with a commentary by Fiennes and Jones; they aren't the most lively interlocutors, but they offer the usual info about their character, inspiration, and shooting. Jones and Fiennes appear again for a 26-minute Q&A as well as a 21-minute press conference from the Toronto International Film Festival. We also get some footage from the film's Toronto premiere, and the film's trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Invisible Woman is a period drama, and those not given to the form won't find this film changing their minds. It can be a bit slow at times, but the overall impact is enough to warrant interest for those who enjoy historical features.
There's nothing Dickensian about The Invisible Woman, and that's a welcome comfort after decades of cloying adaptations. Instead, this is an historical drama that puts the drama first, showing us a relationship that's both beautiful and horrible at the same time. Realized to perfection both in front of and behind the camera, The Invisible Woman (Blu-ray) makes both a fine drama with an excellent Blu-ray release.
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