The Invisible Woman (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

InvisibleWoman 75And The Invisible Woman is potentially an interesting one—it’s somewhat less stuffy than one might imagine, given the subject matter. 

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The Invisible Woman is one of those movies that sounds as if it were made up for the sake of ribbing your average lowbrow moviegoer: A costume drama? Directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes? About Charles Dickens? Snooze. When’s the next Transformers movie come out, anyway? But really, of those three above details, the only one I have any kind of problem with is Fiennes, who has never really lived up to the stature a lot of people try to afford him. Beyond that, I’ll take a costume drama about Dickens any day.

And The Invisible Woman is potentially an interesting one—it’s somewhat less stuffy than one might imagine, given the subject matter. As written by Abi Morgan (who was last seen having a banner year in 2011—she was the scribe for both Shame and The Iron Lady that year), The Invisible Woman deals pretty exclusively with an affair Dickens had with a young actress named Nelly (Felicity Jones) for many years. The film aligns us with Nelly and, as played by Jones, who was the saving grace of 2011’s otherwise dismissible Like Crazy, there is an easier entry point here than there usually is for those averse to costume dramas. Further, Morgan maintains the ability she showed so well in Shame where, even if she isn’t always able to write up a terrifically memorable whole film, does have a knack for scripting very memorable scenes—you won’t be forgetting a train crash or a confrontation between Nelly and Charles’ wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan) anytime soon.

This is Fiennes’ second film in the director’s seat, with the first being 2011’s Coriolanus, which I’m not sure anybody actually liked all that much. Here he proves he’s actually quite a capable director if he wants to be; he doesn’t soften the edges of Morgan’s prickly, above-average script at all. But for his surprising virtues as a director, I’m still having trouble getting behind him as an actor. He isn’t bad as Dickens, exactly, but he’s hardly memorable; once again, Jones’ performance is the real standout of the film. Maybe one of these days she’ll get involved with a project that is more worthy of her potential.

And really, while it seems here like Fiennes is a capable director, I think most of that credit actually falls in Morgan’s lap; it can be argued that all Fiennes does is not blow the memorable scenes in the movie, but that he also doesn’t really bring anything to the table. He could have perhaps found a way to enliven the less show-stopping scenes and make this a more wholly satisfying experience. | Pete Timmermann

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