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Telluride, Colo. — Ralph Fiennes‘ The Invisible Woman, about Ellen Ternan (Felicity Jones), the failed actress and secret mistress that Victorian novelist Charles Dickens hid from the public for seven years, got a very proper reception at its world premiere Saturday at the Telluride Film Festival. The film, which Sony Pictures Classics will launch with a limited opening Dec. 25, received 25 seconds of sustained applause, followed by a Q&A with Fiennes and 2011 National Book Critics Circle Criticism Award winner Geoff Dyer, for which virtually every audience member stayed in their seats.
Dyer compared the film to The French Lieutenant’s Woman (which had Meryl Streep as a Victorian Other Woman), but in its historical authenticity, intellectual ambition and rendering of a repressed era, it’s also a bit like David Cronenberg‘s 2011 Telluride film A Dangerous Method, which earned a Golden Globe nomination for Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud.
Fiennes, who directed and stars as Dickens, plays a role that’s way more fun than Mortensen’s Freud. He’s an exuberant creator of doorstop novels, rollicking public readings, and lively theatrical productions, and an admirable crusader to save downfallen women — but also a selfish bastard who treated the women in his life like characters in his fictions, which he could manipulate at will. While both the film and Fiennes’ performance as Dickens could be awards magnets, his Dickens could be a tricky role to sell to Oscar voters — while a character of irresistible appeal, he is also capable of being quite cruel to his wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan of The Thick of It).
“He was cruel,” Fiennes admitted, “but when people are unhappy in marriage, they are often cruel, I think.” The film also dramatizes Dickens’ guilt, his struggle to care for his mistress, his family and his immense reputation.
The showier, more awards-friendly role is likely to be that of Felicity Jones’ as Ternan. Her tears — which always appeal to awards voters — seem unusually well-earned, partly because Ternan seems so determined not to give into them. Her outrage at Dickens and his marriage-disdaining writer pal Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander), who both defy Victorian convention at women’s expense, plays well to a modern audience, especially the bookish one Telluride attracts. Kristin Scott Thomas also has a juicy part as Ternan’s mother, torn between protecting her teen daughter from the great man’s advances and protecting her from the looming specter of poverty.
Dyer told Fiennes he felt as if the characters in the movie, weighed down by clothing as cumbersome as Victorian propriety itself, yearned to rip them off. (In the sensitive sex scenes, clothing is more decorously disposed of.) “You feel, I’m going to burst out of those clothes,” said Dyer. Fiennes protested that they may not have felt this way — that Dyer may be projecting a modern viewpoint on people who found their clothes perfectly normal. Said Fieenes, “That was a time of corsets and restraint.”
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