When The Invisible Woman was first seen in Telluride and Toronto, we had a nice little roundup going, but somehow, we never got around to another when it screened at the New York Film Festival. That’s when Andrew Schenker wrote in Slant: “If Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus brought a tarted-up faux-verité aesthetic and a modern-times update to its adaptation of Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy, then the filmmaker’s follow-up is conspicuous for its lack of trumpery—as well as for maintaining the temporal grounding of its source material. Based on Claire Tomalin’s 1990 biography of the same name, The Invisible Woman is in every sense a period piece. Jumping between 1885, in which the titular character, Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), reflects on her earlier romance with the now-deceased Charles Dickens (Fiennes) and the time, some decades back, of their affair, Fiennes’s film feels not so much rooted in the past as it is mired in conventions about how to portray that past.”
With today’s limited release, The Invisible Woman joins a crowded field of holiday options and, at RogerEbert.com, Godfrey Cheshire recommends giving it a fair shake, arguing that it “brings extraordinary delicacy and cinematic intelligence to the true story… In Fiennes’s handling, very little is stated in a straightforward or obvious way. It’s almost as if he took Abi Morgan’s screenplay… and stripped away its most utilitarian dialogue, leaving only hints and suggestions of emotions that then must be fleshed out by the actors. The method, whatever its source, makes for a narrative that’s constantly evocative, mysterious, almost impressionistic… The Invisible Woman is one of those evanescent conjurings of a bygone time in which every part serves the whole. The most entrancing and persuasive evocation of Victorian England offered in any recent film, it reflects superb work on the parts of many contributors including cinematographer Rob Hardy, production designer Maria Djurkovic, costumer Michael O’Connor and editor Nicolas Gaster.”
“The Invisible Woman is slow to build—but worth its wait in gold,” agrees Ella Taylor, writing for NPR. “A little over halfway through, this terrific drama bears fiercely down on the steep cost of being two of the significant women in the gilded life of Charles Dickens…. And the impeccable period accessorizing here, the green fields and windy beaches, the conventional flashback structure and sepia light, may trick some into thinking The Invisible Woman is just another muslin-and-bonnets romance floating across the Atlantic to collect at the Anglophile box office. Not so fast.”
“Handsome and intelligent, it’s nonetheless a tepid portrait,” finds Mike D’Angelo at the AV Club. The screenplay “never locates any interest in this material that transcends mere historical gossip. Fiennes and Jones are entirely credible in their reserved English passion, but the affair itself is banal, no different from any other tale of lovers sneaking around trying not to hurt anybody or get caught.”
“Fiennes’s performance looms large over The Invisible Woman, but his film is ultimately less about Dickens than about living in Dickens’s shadow,” writes Keith Phipps at the Dissolve. “Jones delivers a quietly wrenching performance as a woman who comes to recognize too late how much of herself she’s lost. It’s subtle work in a film that is sometimes content to be a little too subtle. Fiennes—who just appeared as Magwitch in Mike Newell’s recent adaptation of Great Expectations—stages scenes beautifully and coaxes remarkable work from the cast, but he never finds a way to bring a dynamic touch to the narrative.”
“Without a wasted gesture, The Invisible Woman situates itself so close to its protagonists that, despite the 19th century’s decorous restraint, it proves a lush, pulsating work,” counters Nick Schager in the Voice. “In its every handheld camera pan around a theater stage, static master shot of patrons at a social gathering, or calamitous edit during and after a train crash that Dickens famously survived, Fiennes’s superb technique stirs feeling and communicates thematic complexities.”
“Coriolanus and The Invisible Woman are mounted with completely dissimilar aesthetic designs,” writes Danny King for Film International, “which is to say that Fiennes has both the desire and the know-how to adjust his directorial approach in order to suit the story at hand—a clear sign of someone who’s thinking through the actual filmmaking process, and not just using the authority of the director’s position to play dress-up and deliver thick monologues. And if the in-your-face immediacy of Coriolanus sometimes seemed hectic and derivative—with the drab palette and scattershot camerawork playing like a direct descendant of DP Barry Ackroyd’s collaborations with Paul Greengrass and Kathryn Bigelow—the controlled, unhurried style of The Invisible Woman comes as a welcome and suitable shift in form.”
“The Invisible Woman reminds you uncomfortably of the degree to which Victorian society was a man’s world,” writes Stephen Holden in the New York Times. “One rebel… is [Wilkie] Collins’s [Tom Hollander] defiantly free-spirited mistress Caroline Graves (Michelle Fairley)… Kristin Scott Thomas, in one of her least glamorous roles, plays Nelly’s caring widowed mother who, realizing that Nelly’s limited acting talent is a hindrance to a theatrical career, tacitly encourages the relationship as long as it is kept secret…. You may become impatient with the leisurely pace of The Invisible Woman and its occasional narrative vagueness, but its open spaces leave room for some of the strongest acting of any contemporary film…. In a crucial role, Joanna Scanlan plays Dickens’s wife, Catherine, the portly long-suffering mother of their 10 children. Far from being the embittered shrew you might imagine, she is a sensitive, supportive helpmate whose inner strength balances any shame and suffering. Like all the film’s characters, she is a complicated, multilayered human being. In other words, Dickensian in the fullest sense.”
Fiennes “coaxes supple work from his cast, especially the actresses,” agrees Time‘s Richard Corliss. “Scanlan and Fairley represent the alpha and omega of English womanhood, Under Fiennes’s baton, Jones, who garnered attention in the indie film Like Crazy, seizes center-screen as Dickens’ love object and querulous conscience…. The Invisible Woman is a major work in a minor key.”
It’s “a near perfect example of a costume drama that makes no concession to the Downton Abbey school of novelettish melodrama,” writes Graham Fuller for Film Comment. “Beyond the use of chiaroscuro lighting, Dickensian ambience has been avoided in favor of uninflected naturalism. Jones’s exquisite portrayal of a virtuous, principled woman capable of hypocrisy epitomizes the subtlety of the film.”
“The strength of the later scenes make it difficult to rescue the project as a whole, but Jones single-handedly elevates the movie beyond its melodramatic roots,” finds Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn.
Updates, 1/2: John Romano in the Los Angeles Review of Books: “Jones seems to have put, at the center of her performance, Ellen’s mind: her conflicts and uncertainties, both as actress and lover, and above all her troubled understanding of the man who loves her. Known almost exclusively, at least in America, for her more energetic and quirky starring role in Like Crazy, here Jones is understated and inward, in a way and to a degree that I found entirely absorbing, but which might be unsatisfying to moviegoers in search of the more obvious pleasures of scandal.”
“Fiennes and his team have mounted a handsome re-creation of Victorian England,” writes the New Yorker‘s David Denby, “but the Dickens-Ternan affair isn’t much of a story—at least, not as realized here. What was the nature of Dickens’s attraction to Ternan? Did he idealize her, as he did several young female characters in his fiction? Or had he fallen into the sexual obsession of a middle-aged man? Why is Dickens mute and stricken? We don’t know. Certainly, the author of Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend understood despair, but somehow I doubt that sexual happiness makes anyone lose his sense of humor.”
At Flavorwire, Michelle Dean suggests that “possibly the worst thing you can say about this movie in isolation is that all the compliments you can give it are so mild.”
Updates, 3/30: “Most writers can tell stories of how their books failed to be made into films,” begins Claire Tomalin in the Guardian, where she notes that three of her books were supposed to hit the screen before The Invisible Woman finally made it. Still, 20 years would go by before she lunched with Fiennes: “The more we talked about the man, the writer and the script, the more I wanted to see him in the part.”
Peter Aspen profile Fiennes for the Financial Times.