How often do you hear critics discuss production design, the sets, the costumes, and so on in movies that don’t happen to be set in the past or future? Furthermore, how many of these aren’t costume dramas or period pieces? There’s no more consistent genre of film than either of these at getting compliments when it comes to the aesthetics of the production, and I have to wonder why that is. My likeliest guess is because critics would otherwise run out of things to talk about, as these films often blend together and fall into the category of “seen one, seem them all.”
To that end, The Invisible Woman is a costume drama primarily set “some years” before 1883, and stars Ralph Fiennes (who also directed the film) and Felicity Jones as Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan respectively. In 1990, a book written by Claire Tomalin was published about a secret love affair between Dickens and this Nelly character, and there still isn’t a substantial amount known about their relationship. The film does its best to fill us in on what could have happened, using the book as a basis.
The film is framed as mostly occurring in a flashback, as Nelly remembers events that happened in the past while attempting to keep her emotions repressed in the present. We get to see how she and Dickens met, how they began their affair, how it broke up his marriage, and so on. Most of the beats you’d expect from a film with this general arc get hit, and there are no real surprises that you’ll encounter, except perhaps that it seems women are often the ones with more than one lover in these types of films, not the men.
Let’s get it out of the way now: The Invisible Woman looks great, has fantastic costuming and production design, and from what I can tell is as authentic to the period as you’re going to get. These films usually are. You watch them partially to be transported back in time to an era during which you were not alive. They have to set the stage, feel genuine, and look gorgeous. It’s almost a redundant statement at this point, but I make it regardless.
Do you know what this movie doesn’t have? Even a smidgen of chemistry between its two leads. That probably sounds odd considering we’re talking about Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones, and it sounds odd to me even writing it, but it’s true. You can’t buy their relationship because neither actor seems to believe in it. They’re much better apart. As solo acts or with people they’re not romantically involved with, both actors shine. It’s together that seems to kill any spark they have going.
The Invisible Woman has a repression of its emotions anyway — how very British of it, I suppose you could say — but when the characters are together, with nobody else there, we should be able to see something resembling love, or at least desire. From Jones, we see an admiration of the work of a great wordsmith, and from him, we don’t see a whole lot. Their romance isn’t believable and the film is tougher to get through than it should as a result.
In fact, because of this, I kept hoping that the “lovers” would go their separate ways earlier, so that we could explore their characters in a deeper way. Dickens in particular is a fully realized individual, a man who isn’t quite larger-than-life even if he does, to some extent, crave the attention of the masses. He’s a flawed man and exploring that is actually more interesting than his affair. Nelly, on the other hand, finds herself at her most intriguing when dealing with her family — in particular her mother, played by Kristen Scott Thomas — as she winds up the black sheep of an all-acting family and is pushed and pulled in different directions over the movie’s duration.
The movie hopes to work on a couple of levels. First, as a retelling of events that probably happened, although not necessarily the way it depicts them. Second, as a compelling romance between a famous man and his previously secret lover. It works chiefly as the first, and falls mostly flat as the second. The repression might be the point, but it doesn’t allow the film to work when it should; you need to let your guard down at some point.
There’s also not much to watch for, which is a problem when you’re making a film in a genre where films easily blend together. There’s no standout moment, no unique visual aesthetic, or anything to keep us interested in a plot we’ve seen before, and characters who seem less interested in each other than lovers should be. Any enjoyment comes from the small moments and the performances — often purposefully understated — but many people are going to find this dull, uninteresting and in service of déjà vu.
Is The Invisible Woman a good or bad film? Can it be both? It has many moments of strength, but its central premise — a romance between two real people we don’t know much about — doesn’t have any power behind it, meaning the film as a whole is going to suffer. There are points of great acting, and the film looks great, but the repressed nature of the romance — purposeful or not — hinders any impact it can have. The Invisible Woman blends in with the rest of the pack and is only really worth seeing if you absolutely love costume dramas.