Whether he's a cartographer getting it on with married woman Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient or a politician romancing hotel cleaning lady Jennifer Lopez in Maid in Manhattan, Ralph Fiennes has always had a knack for playing proper, emotionally constipated gents who lustfully long for some forbidden, society-shunning love. So it's no surprise that for his latest starring and directing turn, dude easily slips into another of these repressed characters whose heart wants what it wants.
In The Invisible Woman, Fiennes' directorial follow-up to 2011's Coriolanus, that figure is none other than Charles Dickens. The creator of Great Expectations is constantly on the mind of Ellen "Nelly" Ternan (Felicity Jones) as she takes long walks on a cold beach, reminiscing about her times with the 19th century novelist.
The movie has her tripping back to younger days when the 18-year-old Ternan was part of a family of actors. (Her mom is played by none other than Fiennes' English Patient paramour Scott Thomas.) When the fam acts in a play being put on by Dickens, then 45 and at the height of his literary rock stardom, the young lass catches the married author's eye.
The relationship between Dickens and Ternan has been a matter of speculation for more than a century, as both destroyed their correspondence. Dickens' marriage ended in separation, and even his 10 children ended up in two different households. But Fiennes makes Dickens out to be a flawed yet generally decent fellow, trying to keep his affection for this girl on the 'low from the public, his wife, his family and even himself. Jones does fine work depicting Ternan as a lady too dignified to play the role of starstruck side-chick.
Under Fiennes' impressive direction, with a respectably restrained script from Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, Shame), The Invisible Woman creates a level-headed look at a scandalous affair. Fiennes handles what could've easily been a salacious, tawdry historical drama with reasonable care, instead presenting a lush, quiet period piece wherein two people try to do the right thing for everybody involved — but end up falling in love anyway.