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The Invisible Woman, Toronto Film Festival, review by the Telegraph

Ralph Fiennes's film about the affair that ended Charles Dickens's marriage - which screened as part of the Toronto Film Festival - is tough but tender, writes Tim Robey

Ralph Fiennes whipped up some great blood and thunder in his directing debut, Coriolanus, despite a minor blind spot in the area of his own performance: "Memo to self: turn it down a notch?" may have been an instruction he was just too busy to issue. His second film, The Invisible Woman, which screened in this year's Toronto Film Festival, is a considerably more patient undertaking, and all the better for it. Fluid, handsome and confidently contained, it benefits from the actor-manager air of Fiennes's presence as Charles Dickens, which is bustling and authoritative but frequently offstage. The film's main character is the altogether sadder Nelly Ternan, the young, aspiring actress whose affair with Dickens in his later years Claire Tomalin handled in her book of the same name.

Felicity Jones takes the role, and very accomplished she is too. Abi Morgan's script better, for my money, than her work on either Shame or The Iron Lady elegantly straddles two timelines to illuminate a deliberately obscured life, opening the book at both ends on this other woman and her divided state of being. We begin on Margate beach in Nelly's adulthood with the sort of travelling, behind-the-head hand-held shot traditionally indicative of roiling unease. So it proves she's on her way to rehearse a school production of Dickens and Wilkie Collins's play The Frozen Deep, which sends her private, distractible thoughts racing back to the time when it premiered, and she was in it.

Guided in this stage apprenticeship, along with two sisters, by her protective, slightly apprehensive mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), Nelly is fast installed as a favourite of Dickens, reciprocates his feelings unambiguously, and knows what she's doing. His wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan) has become part of the furniture after bearing him 10 children, and looks too worn down to protest.

Dickens's relationship to the theatre world, rarely explored on screen, is a major asset here, giving Oscar-winning costume designer Michael O'Connor (The Duchess) plenty of scope to flex his imagination. The milieu plays to Fiennes's strengths, too his film's splendid on both the shonky, hurried artifice of period staging and the evanescent magic that's still capable of bursting through. There's dry comedy in these scenes, thanks to a reliably mischievous Tom Hollander cameo as the floppy-haired Collins, but it's also, exactly as any portrait of the performing arts should be - a world of tactful phoniness, smiling lies.

"There was such clarity in your performance, Nelly!" one of the sisters tells her, but she's only being nice - it comes after an evening of fluffed lines and intermittent heckling, when it dawns on us that thespian talent really isn't among Nelly's birthrights. Jones, an increasingly able and instinctive actress, has the tricky task of inhabiting a mediocre one. Nelly is game and competent but not very gifted, which further pressurises her fledgling affair. Should scandal erupt, what else does she have to fall back on?

Scott Thomas lends a generous helping hand in support: during a hushed late-night chat between the smitten Dickens and her daughter, her role is to be obliviously asleep on the sofa next to them, which must count as easily the most passive screen time this formidable actress has ever clocked.

Long-delayed though it is, the fallout of Charles and Nelly's romance within Dickens's family is finally inevitable he divorced Catherine in 1858. A wonderful Scanlan, who gives arguably the standout performance in this generally smashing cast, gets to lament the sadness of even a sexless marriage being progressively bulldozed by infidelity, in two perfectly weighted, emotionally crushing scenes late on.

The film's tough enough to ponder the irony of a famously compassionate novelist turning a blind eye to the upsets his own life caused on top of its overall class, this gives it a needed edge of controversy, too. One bold, expressionistic sequence brings Fiennes's Dickens face to face with London's wretched homeless down an alley at night. Propositioned by a painted lady, he tries to send her home to her mother. And yet he was capable, to avoid disgrace, of leaving Nelly bleeding and prone when their train went off the rails, snatching up a page from his Great Expectations manuscript, and hurrying on his way. Fiennes's Dickens is far too carefully-drawn to be dismissed as some unfeeling monster, but you might have grave long-term doubts about trusting any of your daughters with him.

Read article in the Telegraph

September 9, 2013

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