Two years after he made his directorial debut with "Coriolanus," the terrific actor Ralph Fiennes arrives with his second effort, an exploration of an illicit liaison that Charles Dickens had with a young actress.
And "The Invisible Woman" is so different in every way from that first film — in content, texture, look, and pace — that, well, it's tempting to call this "A Tale of Two Movies."
Of course, both films are skillfully made, as one would expect from a talent like Fiennes (who also stars in both). But where "Coriolanus" was visceral, violent, and virtually crackling with energy, "The Invisible Woman" is quiet, reflective, richly detailed, and slow-moving.
Nothing wrong with any of that. But it also lacks something crucial: Passion.
This will be particularly disappointing to those who see the names Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas together here, and remember the heat these two generated together, oh, 17 years ago in "The English Patient." Alas, Thomas plays not the love interest here — that goes to the much younger Felicity Jones — but the love interest's mother. (So, stop thinking about that scene where he carries her lifeless body, still lovely, out of the cave. You know who you are.)
It is, though, a fascinating story — and a true one, first told in a 1990 biography by Claire Tomalin, on which the screenplay is based. When Dickens was 45, and at the height of his considerable celebrity, he met 18-year-old Nelly Ternan, a budding actress with a role in one of his theatrical productions.
The year was 1857, in the midst of the Victorian Era. The idea of an 18-year-old having an affair with an older, married father of 10, let alone a beloved public figure, was of course scandalous. But the unlikely liaison lasted for over a decade.
The film begins after Dickens' death. It's 1885 and a school headmaster's wife is directing schoolboys in a play by Dickens and fellow dramatist Wilkie Collins. It's clear from the way she acts that she is distracted, in a deep, disturbing sort of way.
Her thoughts travel back almost three decades, and the affair plays out in flashback. We watch as young Nelly meets Dickens, portrayed by Fiennes as a man in constant creative motion, self-involved but also seductive, by force of his intellect.
Nelly comes from a family of actors, including her mother, but alas, she's not the talented one, though she doesn't know it at first. Yet Dickens is clearly drawn to her; "She has something," he says. Jones, who has a lovely face and a sweet demeanor, succeeds in portraying this soft-spoken woman as someone who is always thinking more deeply than she's letting on.
Hastening the affair is Dickens' obvious dissatisfaction with his marriage. Joanna Scanlan is touching — and, quite suddenly, heartbreaking — as Catherine Dickens, who was in fact discarded, humiliatingly. In one important scene, we learn there's a lot more wisdom in her than jealousy.
There's plenty of fun here for anyone partial to expertly done period dramas. The costumes are wonderful, and it's particularly enjoyable to watch rehearsal scenes in a 19th-century theater.
But as the action progresses, you might find yourself feeling as though you've missed something: The spark that ignites this whole dangerous enterprise. We see evidence that rumors are flying of this illicit coupling way before we see any, er, actual coupling — and what we see isn't enough.
At one point, the older Nelly, reflecting back, comments that there were "days of such joy." Of course, there was pain, too. But it would have been nice, in this otherwise solid effort by Fiennes, to see more of that joy.