A tale of two - Page 2

Actor-director Ralph Fiennes brings Dickens' love life into focus

Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan and Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens in The Invisible Woman.

By the standards of most modern movies set in this era, Invisible Woman is perhaps a little too measured, melancholy, not "romantic" or sumptuous enough. It's not a feel-good costume drama, despite having most of the ingredients for that (famous people, star-crossed love, etc.) Like Coriolanus, it's a bit somber, thinky, and vigorously unsentimental.

Fiennes (who purportedly only took the role after another actor he'd cast dropped out) is very good as usual. You could put together an extraordinary retrospective of roles he's played onscreen so far (and a dismaying smaller one of the few he was flat-out wrong in, mostly incongruous mainstream duds like 2002's Maid in Manhattan and 1998's non-Marvel Avengers), yet few major actors have done so good a job of circumventing the attention they've earned. Jones is also fine, though the jury remains out on whether she'll turn out an actress as interesting as she is polished (and pretty). She's a little stiff here, a deliberate choice that nonetheless makes the film a few degrees less emotionally engaging.

The entire cast (also including Kristin Scott Thomas as Ternan's cautiously approving actress mother, and Tom Hollander as the author Wilkie Collins) is impeccable. But in a quiet way the movie is almost stolen by Joanna Scanlan's Mrs. Dickens — a great squat, stolid lump of a woman, like Queen Victoria herself, but painfully aware of her social and physical lacks.

One sequence that might seem invented and improbable is based on fact: Dickens cruelly made his by-now-wised-up wife deliver a present to his mistress, a means of asserting his ersatz blamelessness that could only acutely humiliate the two women who best knew otherwise. Even today, large women are so seldom portrayed as anything but nasty and/or comedic that Scanlan makes a striking impression simply for taking an important, non-stereotypical role here. But beyond that, her wounded dignity in the few scenes allowed her is heartbreaking. *

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN opens Fri/10 in San Francisco.

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