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'The Invisible Woman' review: And you thought you loved Dickens

Matt Pais, @mattpais

RedEye movie critic

January 23, 2014

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**1/2 (out of four)

Joseph Fiennes had “Shakespeare in Love” and now his big bro Ralph has “Dickens in Love,” which actually is called “The Invisible Woman” because that sounds more elegant. Also because Charles Dickens (played by Fiennes) was in love with a woman who wasn’t his wife.

That was Nelly (Felicity Jones), who as captured in this restrained drama directed by Fiennes, experienced feelings with the married literary legend in the mid-1800s. As their relationship slowly grows, he notes both his love for his family and his happiness to escape them. The rest is unspoken. If it weren’t, they’d say, “Something’s totally happening here, right?”

Naturally, Victorian-era Manchester wasn’t thrilled even by rumors of extramarital dalliances, causing the affections between the man behind “Great Expectations” and a woman who inspired a character in “A Tale of Two Cities” to exist largely in the shadows. This doesn’t mean passionately sneaking around, though. The love in “The Invisible Woman” remains muted, with viewers having to chalk things up to the vague understanding that old-timey people who fell hard didn’t know each other well or communicate much. (That would never happen now, of course.)

Jones (“Like Crazy”) might be the best young actress who no one’s buzzing about. She’s delicate and complex as Nelly, and “Invisible Woman” lets us feel like we know the title character. The same can’t be said of Dickens. That’s partially because writer Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady”), adapting Claire Tomalin’s book, alternates between Nelly’s post-Dickens life in 1883 and her largely unhappy days with the author/local celeb “some years earlier.”

With his directorial debut, the Shakespeare adaptation “Coriolanus,” Fiennes successfully took a topic you (I) thought would be boring and gave it a pulse. In “Woman,” he’s after the secrets that both wear us down and bring us together. Yet the film is shot like a romantic tragedy straight out of a classic novel, but without the detail that elevates infatuation to a bond worth sacrificing for.

Still, when Dickens asks Nelly to tell him a secret and she whispers her middle name (Lawless!), the relatively lame revelation makes the moment no less intimate. They’re two people, unsure what will and can happen between them, feeling an undeniable heat. The movie could have used more of that fire.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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