First night: The Invisible Woman; Toronto Film Festival
An unlikely Dickensian romance, but Ralph Fiennes shines in the limelight
Friday 06 September 2013
Performing admirably both behind and in front of the camera, Ralph Fiennes depicts Charles Dickens as a boisterous man so taken with his own celebrity that he believes he can hide his affair with a young actress (Felicity Jones) from the press. This is a film of two strands. As a treatise on how celebrity can delude it is excellent, but Fiennes is initially less sure-footed when dealing with the central secret romance.
Adapted from Claire Tomalin’s acclaimed 1990 biography, the film is framed by a device in which the married schoolteacher, Nelly Wharton Robinson (Jones) is prodded by a Charles Dickens enthusiast (John Kavanagh) to own up to the secret affair from her past, when she went by the name of Ellen Ternan.
As in The Iron Lady, the screenwriter Abi Morgan makes much use of flashbacks and once again they prove to be something of an Achilles heel, ensuring a long-winded introduction of two large sets of characters in different towns and different eras, most of whom end up in the chorus.
In Margate, 1885, the school of Nelly’s headmaster husband (Tom Burke) is putting on a production of No Thoroughfare: A Drama: In Five Acts. The action then flashes back to a Manchester theatre where an 18-year-old Ellen arrives with her family of actresses – mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and older sister (Amanda Hale) – to perform in Dickens’ adaptation of his friend Wilkie Collins’ (Tom Hollander) play The Frozen Deep.
The one character who remains peripheral during all of this is spouse Catherine Dickens, who ends up stealing the picture thanks to a wonderful performance from Getting On star Joanna Scanlan. She plays the mother-of-ten as someone who is so protective of her husband that she seems more concerned about the threat to his reputation than the fact that she is being wronged. There is no kicking, no screaming.
Dickens is far from the stereotype of the manic control freak. Instead, in Fiennes’ portrayal, he is a hugely likeable character with a tremendous aura, who asserts control through sheer weight of personality.
He also loves fame – when he attempts to go incognito at the races, he seems pretty happy at being uncovered. He understands that being feted as the greatest writer in England gives him power and it is a power he is happy to use.
As for the title character, as Ellen, Jones is the hidden mistress; as Nelly, she is the one holding the secret. Yet in both roles, her main concern is being quietly dutiful to her man.
It is a shame that the transformation of Ellen into Nelly is poorly served by the flashback structure; it would have been intriguing to see one of Britain’s best young actresses performing outside of her comfort zone.
musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years
Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Revolutionary lost Caravaggio painting 'Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy' identified
- 2 McKamey Manor: This 'extreme' haunted house is the stuff of nightmares
- 3 Russell Brand says he will 'probably' give up acting to focus on his revolution
- 4 Watch what happened when food critics were unknowingly served McDonald's
- 5 David Beckham's Haig Club whisky is exactly what’s wrong with the Highlands
This is what a film sex scene actually looks like on set (mostly awkward)
Revolutionary lost Caravaggio painting 'Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy' identified
After Sam Smith’s Mobo success, is the help of a pushy parent the surest route to stardom?
Pottermore: JK Rowling writes new Harry Potter story featuring 'greying' 33-year-old wizard
JK Rowling to publish new Harry Potter story online for Halloween
Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Support for EU membership 'at highest level since 1991' with most Brits wanting to stay 'in'
Thousands with degenerative conditions classified as 'fit to work in future' – despite no possibility of improvement
Tony Blair 'says Ed Miliband will lose 2015 general election'
Putin: The US is to blame for almost all the world's major conflicts