The Invisible Woman (2013)

It’s that time of year when the cinemas screen a lot of serious films by serious directors looking for awards recognition, so I’ve seen quite a few of them, and may be suffering from fatigue. I think this sophomore effort by renowned English actor Ralph Fiennes is far from being dull, but it trades in a soft, underplayed sensitivity that perhaps isn’t really in vogue right now. It tells the late-19th century story of a famous author, Charles Dickens, and his affair with a younger woman, actor Nelly Ternan, but in a way that really de-emphasises the sex and salaciousness. One might uncharitably say it’s replaced that with some lovely, detailed period costumes and other such details, but there’s still plenty of emotional heft.

What in fact we get is a film very much focused on this once ‘invisible woman’, played by a radiant Felicity Jones, and such is her centrality to the film that maybe it’s Charles Dickens’s real wife Catherine who should be labelled as such. The story takes Nelly’s later marriage to a respectable middle-class educator in Margate, Kent — and her exchanges with a local curate — as a framing story for her youthful dalliance with Dickens. The romance between the two is developed very slowly and without any showiness on either’s part. There’s nary a hint of any bodice-ripping or heavy-breathing lust, but instead a romance founded at first on artistic and intellectual appreciation.

One wonders, indeed, if our director perhaps sees some points of contact with the character he plays, a man as famous in his time as any modern screen celebrity. There are some conversations devoted to his relationship with his public, and how that dominates his life. But this isn’t really a story about Dickens, as about Nelly. It’s her face the camera lingers on (especially when Fiennes isn’t also on screen), often in extreme close-ups.

One recurring visual motif in the film is the faces of Fiennes and Jones in the windows of a train, their shadowy reflection superimposed over the passing English landscape. It suggests a sort of liminality that encapsulates some of the doomed nature of their characters’ love; eventually we find out that this train journey took place at a very delicate point in their relationship. That the romance never really resolves itself positively is largely a reflection of how it was subject to the mores of the times (as well, perhaps, as how very circumstantial most of the surviving evidence for it is). Nelly finds herself adhering to these societal standards, and is repulsed by the freer, unmarried relationship of Dickens’s friend Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander) with his partner Caroline. So the story begins with her difficulty reconciling these pressures, at a point when she is enjoying the kind of marriage which she had been conditioned to covet and which she could never have had with Dickens.

There’s something about the way the story focuses on this inner turmoil within Nelly, and set against her society, that make it a bit difficult to really hold onto. This emotional evanescence is well-handled by the actors, though, and it’s never less than a sumptuously-mounted period piece. It treads delicately through its hidebound Victorian setting, against which all the characters — Dickens, his mistress, his wife, his children, his audience and his friends — come into conflict. Some do manage to prevail, but its the cost of that which the film is interested in above all.

The Invisible Woman film posterCREDITS
Director Ralph Fiennes; Writer Abi Morgan (based on The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin); Cinematographer Rob Hardy; Starring Felicity Jones, Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Hollander; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 11 February 2014.

Pride and Prejudice (2005)

There have been a lot of adaptations and reimaginings of novels by Jane Austen (there was a particular glut of them in the 1990s), and for my sins I’ve seen a fair few, such that I’m never really sure what’s going on and who’s who whenever an Austen film starts. I feel like I should know the stories better, but they always seem to involve a bit of to-do around social status, some mentions of the gentleman’s annual income, several lengthy dance sequences, and many many glorious frocks. As staples of the ‘heritage film’ — a moribund genre if ever there was one, laid out by Merchant-Ivory and focused above all on bloodless period frippery — they should by all rights be terrible, but I must admit I like the odd period film with all their stuffed shirts and wilful heroines.

In terms of being a particular departure for the genre, I shan’t mount any great defence of this 2005 adaptation, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen as the prideful and prejudicial protagonists. If you are convinced that the heritage film privileges a conservative, prettified and cleaned-up view of history-as-nostalgia more apt to be commodified as home design or fashion choices, then you won’t be changing your mind with this film. There are some gorgeous views of the English countryside, of the Bennets’ gently dilapidated home, and of the grand estates to which several of the Bennets aspire, and very little historical or political context. The choice to move the setting from the early-19th century of the novel to the late-18th century seems motivated more by a desire to incorporate different frocks and thus differentiate the enterprise from the more famous television adaption of ten years earlier (the one with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle).

All those caveats aside, this is an excellent production of the Austen novel, well-mounted and acted, beautifully-filmed, and which is generous with the characters (as generous as it could be, given it’s not a six-hour TV mini-series). There is some particularly nice early flair with the camera, featuring long sinuous tracking shots, and a stand-out sequence during a dance which moves in one take through several rooms and catches little vignettes and dialogue from various of the characters.

Sadly, this inventiveness with the mise en scène largely cedes to more classical filmmaking as the drama progresses, but luckily the acting holds its own. I’ve not always been fond of angular, toothsome Keira Knightley in the past, but as the winsome (and, yes, wilful) Elizabeth Bennet she does rather well with what is very much the central role. Macfadyen gloms moodily around the edges, displaying the required want of sociability rather than mere haughty imperiousness — that quality is left to his best friend’s sister, played perfectly by Kelly Reilly. The rest of the Bennet family are by turns shrill (Brenda Blethyn’s mother), giggly (Carey Mulligan and Jena Malone as Kitty and Lydia) and moody (the stand-out Mary, played by Talulah Riley). Their boisterousness is rather distracting from the precarious background to the story’s predicament — that if the daughters are not married, the family will become destitute — something that only Donald Sutherland’s father and Rosamund Pike as eldest sister Jane seem to carry. As the man to whom the family fortune will fall, Tom Hollander is a comedic highlight as the desperately unctuous Mr Collins.

It may not be cinematic cutting edge, but it’s the kind of straightforward, nicely-made and well-acted confection that makes for comforting viewing. There’s at least something to that, so I’m happy to allow this as a worthwhile addition to an already oversubscribed genre.


CREDITS
Director Joe Wright; Writer Deborah Moggach (based on the novel by Jane Austen); Cinematographer Roman Osin; Starring Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen, Tom Hollander, Donald Sutherland, Kelly Reilly; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 21 May 2013.