Friday, January 24, 2014

The Invisible Woman

I wonder, idly, how different Ralph Fiennes's image would be if he pronounced his name the way it is spelled. "Ralph" is working-class, friendly, a guy who makes everybody laugh. "Rafe", especially when it's spelled "Ralph", is pretentious as heck. Of course he's doing art-house movies, and is very serious even when part of a big franchise like Harry Potter or James Bond.

Don't get me wrong, I'm frequently impressed by the guy, but the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel that I saw a few days back terrified me. Once you get past the latest bit of Wes Anderson's "look at my visual choices that call attention to themselves - I went with Academy ratio this time!" pleas for attention, it becomes very clear that much of the movie is going to live and die on Ralph Fiennes being funny, and he has just never been that. Heck, remember that movie they did based upon the TV series The Avengers? It had a ton of other major problems - most notably being cut all to heck to try and squeeze another screening per day out of it by getting it under 90 minutes - but one of the biggest ones that a good part of it being funny should have been Fiennes playing John Steed straight and unflappable, but he couldn't even be funny that way. Now he's going to be in a movie that has him being odd and making jokes?

He plays against that perception a bit in The Invisible Woman, making Charles Dickens a charming fellow who is quick to laugh and joke, although there's certainly plenty of complexity to be revealed later. It's quite possibly my favorite performance of his, actually, and I'm really glad to see that he has something like that in him.

One thing that surprised me about the casting was that this is only the second time he and Kristin Scott Thomas have worked together since The English Patient, and I had quite frankly never heard of Chromophobia before looking that up. Seems unlikely, doesn't it, both in Kristin Scott Thomas being one of the few British actors to complete avoid Harry Potter and how both seemed to gravitate toward the same sort of prestige projects for a while. Heck, I figured that at one point someone would have to get them together with their lower-profile but slightly more cheerful siblings Joseph and Serena for a romantic comedy of some sort, even considering the "Ralph Fiennes isn't funny" thing.

It is, of course, worth noting that having famously played the main pairing in The English Patient, Fiennes's character is romancing the daughter of Thomas's in this one. At least the age difference is noted, rather than it just being the normal way things happen as so often seems to be the case.

And speaking of fun casting and siblings, I had a hard time placing who was playing one of the Felicity Jones character's sisters, feeling sure I'd seen her before. It turns out that I probably haven't seen Perdita Weeks in anything, but her sister Honeysuckle is a favorite of mine in Foyle's War. Acting certainly is a family business in the UK, it seems.

One last aside from that - one of the many things in this movie that amused me a little bit is how Dickens - the writer - is tremendously famous and recognized on the street, while the actresses who seem to be fairly well-regarded by their peers are relatively anonymous and struggling to make ends meet, with the oldest eventually taking a job as a governess. It's a fun detail, part of the attention to such things that I find makes a period piece like this much more enjoyable.

The Invisible Woman

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 January 2014 in Landmark Kendall Square (first-run, 2K DCP)

It's been far too long since I've read far too little Dickens, but that actually matters not a whit in appreciating The Invisible Woman; though knowing some details of his work certainly will help, this story of him and his young lover is quite fascinating on its own.

We first meet Ellen Wharton-Robinson (Felicity Jones) as a popular teacher in her husband George's school, and the children are putting on a play written by Charles Dickens. It is mentioned that she met the man when she was younger, with some saying she served as the inspiration for Little Nell. The latter part is not so; Ellen "Nelly" Ternan met Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) when the Ternan family of actresses - including Nelly's two sisters and mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) - took parts in a play he was presenting in Manchester. The author took note of the pretty 18-year-old girl who had read everything he had written, and an affair was soon in the offing.

It seems a bit of an odd choice to start with Nelly's life after Dickens and frequently return to it; for all that there's a story there about her secret history being a constant source of tension even without a nosy vicar (John Kavanagh) wanting to discuss the great writer, it does feel a bit of a distraction, as George never gets the full exploration Dickens does and the conclusion of the framing story doesn't have the weight of its flashbacks. Still, it serves a purpose in allowing director Ralph Fiennes and the writers (Claire Tomalin for the original book, Abi Morgan for the screenplay) to occasionally jump forward in the story of Charles Dickens's & Nelly Ternan's affair and finish the movie with the sort of epilogue that fits the plays Dickens wrote perfectly but which is not necessarily natural in a film.

Full review at EFC.

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