Charles Dickens wrote his way into immortality through a series of stories that embrace the most emotional moments in life. Now his life story is the subject of the film "The Invisible Woman," which screens Friday night to start the 13th year of Fresno Filmworks presentations.
The movie is based on Claire Tomalin's 1990 biography, "The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens," which shows Dickens was living a life of great expectations as the perfect father who was also sharing his love with a mistress, Ellen Ternan, better known as Nelly.
The film, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes as the Victorian writer, lovingly turns back the pages on Dickens' life to show the emotional turmoil that he faced. Fiennes crafts a film that is content to walk around the edges of events so that the focus is more cerebral and less sexual. It's presented much the same way a novel during the Victorian Era would treat salacious elements, with more innuendo than direct examination.
The film delves into an affair Dickens had with Nelly (Felicity Jones), the innocent daughter of an actress friend of Dickens' who gets pulled in by the wit and charms of the author. Told in flashbacks, Nelly recounts how her burning desire to be in the arms of the writer ended up forcing her into the solitary life of a kept woman.
Despite being saddled with all of the demands that come with directing, Fiennes turns in one of the best performances of his career. He's at ease, whether portraying Dickens as the noted celebrity of his time or grappling with his emotions that become divided. Fiennes accomplishes this without turning Dickens into a caricature.
Fiennes doesn't get the same performance from Jones. In a sequences that shows Nelly's life after Dickens, she never shows the scars of the broken heart she's lived with most of her life. Jones never fully presents the emotional and sexual conflicts the young woman must have faced. She comes close, but her overall performance feels just a little too distant.
The film is so magnificently staged, it's almost possible to overlook the flaws. The wardrobes are particularly stunning as presented by Academy Award-winning costume designer Michael O'Connor, who earned an Oscar nomination for "The Invisible Woman."
Just like a Dickens novel, the film presents a tale of emotions that ebb and flow like an ocean tide. Had Fiennes pushed Jones to wade deeper into the emotional eddy trying to drag her down, "The Invisible Woman" would have been clearly magnificent. It might have been just the specter of how this relationship is debated among Dickens scholars that made him pull back slightly. As is, it's still a first-rate story given great life by Fiennes.
"The Invisible Woman," rated R for sexual content. Stars Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas. Directed by Ralph Fiennes. Running time: 111 minutes. Grade: B. A Fresno Filmworks presentation at 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. Friday only, Tower Theatre, 815 E. Olive Ave.