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'The Invisible Woman': Ralph Fiennes proves himself a first-rate director

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The Invisible Woman

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With “The Invisible Woman”, stellar and long-acclaimed actor Ralph Fiennes proves himself as a first-rate director.

After his strong and beautiful debut behind the camera with 2011’s “Coriolanus”, I came away impressed but unsurprised by the power and precision of his execution. Though not particularly memorable (having I think more to do with the screenplay than the presentation), it was an excellent choice of material on his part.

With its intense lead (whom he also played) and the carrying out of broad and mighty strokes, it suited perfectly the intensity with which Fiennes handles characters the likes of Voldemort and Goeth, giving him room to direct with an equally broad stroke. Bold and aggressive, it afforded opportunity for elegance while maintaining a wide margin for error (i.e., the temptation to portray nuance before one finds one’s directorial voice).

He’s been busy these past few years. And he’s honed that voice to perfect pitch.

With “The Invisible Woman”, Fiennes draws his characters with astonishing intimacy. Employing perspective that moves from near to far, far to near, far to further, and near enough to become part of a character’s blink or simplest routine, he brings us into the most secret places of the heart even as he keeps us always mindful of the societal pressure at work.

Here we meet Ellen “Nelly” Ternan, youngest of a trio of sisters pursuing a successful acting career in Victorian England under the careful management and chaperonage of their devoted mother. Enraptured with the work of contemporary superstar Charles Dickens, Nelly is easily dazzled when the family is invited to participate in one of his stage productions. She fully sees his genius, and more to the point, his artistic intent.

Dickens likewise sees her understanding, and finds himself irresistibly drawn to her, as one is drawn to another who finally, truly see us. Only thing is, he’s married.

Thus unfolds an impossible romance of repression and recognition, of costs demanded and prices paid. Of social mores, preservation of reputation, and the broad and mighty strokes necessary to making possible a life in which one is truly known, truly seen, even as the same strokes tear another part of it ~ or another ~ asunder.

Fiennes himself is marvelous as Dickens, who despite the solemnity of so much of his work, carried forth with a remarkable joie de vivre. A warm, kind man in many ways, like humans are he was a mix of contradiction, unable or unwilling to see his own contribution to the status quo, and capable of exquisite cruelty on occasion. Not of evil, but perhaps better said an overzealous decisiveness in executing his plans.

When is the price of such a plan too high, the broad and mighty strokes too bloody? And when is the prize worth it, even though they be so? Can one find one’s way forward after payment? The path is not without its collateral damage.

Some of said collateral damage comes in the form of the superb Joanna Scanlan as Catherine Dickens. Fiennes and Scanlan draw her so beautifully, and their subplot so powerfully that for a time I wondered if perhaps she were the titular character. (Boy, and I thought it was harsh when Russell Brand declared his intent to divorce to Katy Perry via text. On New Year’s Eve. Holy moly.)

Other comes in the form of Nelly’s compromise. To one view it was of the highest order, a most grievous self-betrayal; to another, simply the price of admission under the current social structure. It’s easy to perceive her as being a man’s toy in a rigidly patriarchal age, but another option, a model, was put before her at one point as well. Thus the complex story of this particular invisible woman suggests as much about choice, courage, pressure, and consequence as it does about this particular romance between of one the world’s most beloved authors and his muse.

(I couldn’t help being reminded throughout of Billy Crudup, who was on my blacklist for years for having left a 7-months-pregnant Mary Louise Parker for Claire Danes. My policy is clear demarcation between the actor and the work, but once in a blue moon it’s simply too affrontive. Until I saw "Stage Beauty", on which they met, and given their incendiary chemistry had to wonder if he were simply faced with a Life Decision, for which the timing just couldn’t have been worse. They were together for “only” five years, and far be it from me to comment, but it’s a compelling inquiry to be sure, and one probably worth having should one encounter it ~ think "Bridges of Madison County".)

Felicity Jones shines under Fiennes’ eye, coming to life in a capacity she hasn’t been afforded to date; if you’ll forgive the pun, she herself is finally far from invisible. Screenwriter Abi Morgan (of the sensational "Shame") crafts Claire Tomalin’s book with delicacy and compassion, and the supporting performances happily oblige.

Round things out with award-worthy costume and production design so deft we forget we’re in period piece, and "The Invisible Woman" offers a stirring glimpse into one of history’s great romances and the loud and quiet figures within it.

Oh, and I’d happily pay handsomely for “Dickens: The Complete Works” narrated by Fiennes. His reading of Dickens’ work during one scene was perfection. Maybe time for a petition with accompanying Kickstarter campaign…

Story: Fact-based account of the bright young woman for whom the celebrated (and married) Charles Dickens falls.

Genre: Drama, Biography

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas, Joanna Scanlan, Tom Hollander, John Kavanagh, Perdita Weeks, Amanda Hale, Michelle Fairley, Tom Burke

Directed by: Ralph Fiennes

MPAA: R

Running time: 111 minutes

Houston release date: January 17, 2014 at the Sundance Cinema

Tickets: Check the Sundance website, IMDb, or your local listings

Screened Jan 8th at the Landmark River Oaks theater in Houston TX

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