The English literary tradition in film seems to run through Ralph Fiennes. Recently, he co-starred in Skyfall, in the Bond series based on Ian Fleming stories. His directorial debut was his interpretation of a Shakespeare play, Coriolanus. Fiennes is perhaps most well-known for playing Voldemort, based on the wildly popular Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Even Fiennes’ screen debut was as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Last year, Fiennes tried his hand as Magwitch, in the most recent movie version of Great Expectations.
Something must have hit a nerve in Fiennes, as he returns in his second time around as a director in The Invisible Woman, based on the Claire Tomalin biography of the same name. Moving beyond playing literary characters, Fiennes embodied the author, Charles Dickens. Interestingly, though, the movie is far more interesting when portraying Dickens’ muse, the eponymous Invisible Woman, Nelly Tiernan, captured bravely and fiercely by Felicity Jones. When Fiennes appears on screen as Dickens, it is hard to make out his intentions in portraying the character. Is he supposed to be seen as sympathetic? Buffoonish? Suffering from a midlife crisis?
Fiennes is much better when he retreats behind the camera and his subject, Tiernan, to shine. The story is told backwards, with an older Tiernan recalling her interactions with Dickens in flashback, but returning to her current state, as she must address the paradox of Dickens the tradition versus Dickens the man. Perhaps The Invisible Woman is most successful when Fiennes lets Dickens’ powerful presence linger over Tiernan’s life, and not try to frame the action in terms of what truly occurred.
The brilliance of Tomalin’s book is that a long chapter detailing Tiernan’s closeness with Dickens is written in hypotheticals. The invisibleness of this woman was not simply that she was content to be thought of as a secret, but that she was, for all intents and purposes, truly invisible. Very little, if anything is known of what occurred during a number of years, and the fault of Fiennes’, (or perhaps screenwriter Abi Morgan) is that the uncertainty, the might haves and the may have, are too often presented as honest truths. I do not even want to get into the scene in which Tiernan may have inspired Dickens to write Great Expectations, as literary intentions are extremely difficult to capture, in any medium.
Though Invisible Woman is fine, experiencing the story of Nelly Tiernan is a Fiennes choice.