There was a time when The Invisible Woman—a movie that takes a speculative look at an affair Charles Dickens had towards the end of his life—would have had Oscar written all over it. Oscar used to love these ornate period dramas so very, very much.
The film, released in a limited number of theaters, did pull down a nomination for costume design, but that's all. Now, I'm not saying I personally would've nominated this movie in the major categories, but I am saying it's a pretty close call in some categories for a film that got absolutely no buzz during awards season. Considering its subject matter and period-piece pedigree, this would have been Oscar heaven in 1995.
Ralph Fiennes directs himself as Dickens, and he presents the author as the John Lennon or Elvis Presley of his day. Dickens was a literary rock star and one of the first to deal with print media scrutiny and hordes of fans when he tried to take a walk or go to the theater. The married Dickens also created quite a bit of controversy by having an affair with a young actress named Nelly (Felicity Jones), whose full name was Ellen Ternan.
Jones, the stunning actress who broke through with an amazing performance in Like Crazy, is this film's best asset. As Nelly, an aspiring actress with questionable talent and a discreetly displayed big-fan crush on Dickens, Jones brings a smoldering sophistication to her role and goes toe to toe with Fiennes in many scenes. This actress is the real deal, and would've been a lock for an Oscar nom back when films like Sense and Sensibility and Shakespeare in Love were all the rage.
As for Fiennes, he does a fine acting job on top of steady, stable directorial work. The film, based on the Claire Tomalin novel that speculates on aspects of the Dickens/Nelly affair, is told out of chronological order. Fiennes makes the time shifts easy, anchoring the movie with a stunning beach shot that allows us to know we are back in the latter part of the story.
Much of what happens in this movie is based on true events, including the 1865 Staplehurst rail crash that many attributed to Dickens' subsequent health woes and decrease in writing output. While riding with Nelly, the train derailed and Dickens tended to the dying and injured. He began a retreat from the literary scene in the aftermath and died only five years later.
Other parts of the film are based more on rumors and foggy history, including Dickens and Nelly losing a baby and their living situations towards the end of his life.
Fiennes looks to show a parallel between celebrity today and celebrity 150 years ago. Dickens lived in a time where it was unheard of to divorce, and an extramarital affair equated to mortal sin. (I guess it still does today in some sects.)
One of the film's greatest scenes is when Dickens' wife, Catherine (heartbreakingly portrayed by Joanna Scanlan), learns the details of her separation from him through an article, penned by him, in the newspaper. I'm sure there are many celebrity spouses today who have found out about their impending separation or divorce via TMZ.com.
The movie is a beauty to look at, boasting some of 2013's finest cinematography (by Barry Ackroyd of The Hurt Locker and Captain Phillips). The Oscar nom for Costume Design is well deserved. I never questioned the authenticity of the time period Fiennes and crew were recreating. It all looks very real.
This is the second directorial effort for Fiennes after 2011's very good Coriolanus. I think he's a director to be reckoned with in that he has a crafty touch with sensitive subjects.
So much of The Invisible Woman could've been heavy handed, like a soap opera, in the hands of another director. Fiennes makes his movie seem less a period piece and more a universal statement of media's power over lives and their ability to inhibit our choices.