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updated: 1/23/2014 6:14 AM

'Invisible Woman' tells tale of Dickens' loves

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  • Felicity Jones' nuanced performance practically steals the period drama "The Invisible Woman," the story of Charles Dickens' secret love life.

      Felicity Jones' nuanced performance practically steals the period drama "The Invisible Woman," the story of Charles Dickens' secret love life.

  • Video: "The Invisible Woman" trailer

 
 

In a less-crowded year of Oscar-caliber contenders, Ralph Fiennes' impeccably mounted period drama "The Invisible Woman" might have garnered more Academy Award nominations than its single nod for Michael O'Connor's impressive costume design.

This movie showcases some dandy detailed Victorian-era outfits, but they are only some of the pleasures to be enjoyed in Fiennes' second directorial effort (the first being "Coriolanus"), a tidy and immersive look at the secret romantic life of British novelist Charles Dickens.

As Dickens, Fiennes -- fitted with a thinning pate and Shakespearean beard -- brings the author to life as a literary rock star, a popular public figure who greatly enjoys fame and public approval.

Which explains why the 45-year-old writer desperately keeps his affair with an 18-year-old actress, Nelly Ternan, on the ultra down-low.

As the father of 10 children and defender of the underprivileged, he has too much to lose should his image be tarnished.

Fiennes breathes the folly of romance into Dickens, an intellectual, sensitive man married to Catherine (a cherubic Joanna Scanlan), a now-portly wife he no longer loves or desires. His heart wants what it wants. That's that.

Both Scanlan and Fiennes are splendid performers, but this movie belongs to Felicity Jones, whose highly nuanced portrait of Nelly takes her from giddy youthfulness to painful awareness of her limited options as a woman in a male-dominated Elizabethan society.

Always a gentleman, Dickens woos the young girl, using his celebrity, wit and intellect to slowly break down her moral barriers to become his reluctant mistress.

She and her doting mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) both know that respectability and marriage cannot be possible in this arrangement. Yet her realistic and practical mother condones it. Dickens is, after all, an influential, well-off figure.

Dickens waxes on about his liberating feelings toward Nelly. But the freedom he celebrates, she says, "is a freedom I cannot see."

Fiennes' Dickens radiates the unbridled narcissism of a middle-aged man of accomplishment, as Jones' young woman slowly transitions into sadness and resentment while imprisoned in the shadow of the author's ego. An invisible woman.

Fiennes directs this drama -- insightfully constructed by "Shame" and "The Iron Lady" screenwriter Abi Morgan -- with economic clarity that eschews the pretentiousness and clichés common to so many other works in the period bio-drama genre.

Dickens shares gently barbed relationships with his two women: Nelly, a highly moral person pressed on all sides to subvert her nature; and the totally submissive Catherine, treated as collateral damage in the novelist's quest for personal fulfillment.

Reportedly, the true love of Dickens' life was actually Catherine's younger sister Mary, who died of a heart attack at 17. He removed a ring from her finger and wore it every day until his death at 58. (He also wanted to be buried in Mary's grave, but now we're getting into Edgar Allan Poe territory.)

If Ilan Eshkeri's strings-based score occasionally goes over the top to pump up a few of this movie's many contained moments, that's quite all right.

"The Invisible Woman" is still a Dickens of a fine time at the Century Centre Cinema in Chicago and the Lincolnshire Stadium 21. Rated R for sexual situations. 111 minutes. ★ ★ ★ ½

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