Blu-ray Review: The Invisible Woman

STUDIO: Sony | DIRECTOR: Ralph Fiennes | CAST: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas, Joanna Scanlan
BLU-RAY & DVD RELEASE DATE: 4/15/2014 | PRICE: Blu-ray/DVD Combo $35.99
BONUSES: commentary with Fiennes and Jones, Toronto Festival red carpet footage, Q&A
SPECS: R | 111 min. | Drama romance | 2.40:1 widescreen | DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1/Dolby Digital 5.1 | English, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

In the mighty pantheon of memorable Dickens characters—among the Scrooges and Dodgers and Havishams—I’ll confess that I’ve always found myself underwhelmed by the character of Estella in Great Expectations (which, I’ll also confess, is far and away my favorite Dickens novel).  Beautiful and aloof, she torments the character of Pip—who loves her with a true and passionate love (I guess?  I mean, why, aside from her obvious physical endowments?)—for the better part of three decades.  For a Dickens character, she’s always struck me as curiously lacking in both a discernible inner life and explicable motivation.  Even her eventual decision to marry the least worthy of her suitors is never adequately explained beyond the age-old lament of the cast-off nice guy: Hot chicks and douchebags, amirite?

The Invisible Woman

Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones in The Invisible Woman.

So the suggestion offered in the film The Invisible Woman, that Estella was inspired at least in part by Dickens’s long-time and much-younger mistress, Nelly Ternan, redounds either to the shame of Dickens or to the credit of actress Felicity Jones (Like Crazy). Jones portrays Ternan over a roughly twenty-year period with an exquisite nuance and grace that fully match her exquisite on-screen beauty. Major props also go to Ralph Fiennes (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2) for his masterful direction (it’s his second go-round in the director’s chair, the first being 2011’s Coriolanus) while turning in what may be the finest performance of his career in the role of Charles Dickens himself. The Dickens that Fiennes gives us is a man in full—one who can’t help but court the celebrity status that hobbles and hinders him, and who advocates with sincerity and passion for the impoverished downtrodden of Victorian England, even while exacting an excruciating toll on those closest to him.

Credit should also be given to Joanna Scanlan (TV’s The Thick of It) for her bracing portrayal of Catherine, Dickens’s porcine and peevish wife.  Since this is a biopic, I’ll refrain from noting how convenient it is that Catherine is so dour while Nelly is so delectable. It’s entirely possible that that’s how it was in real life. In fairness, if I had ten kids and a straying husband, I’d probably be chock-full of bitterness and bonbons as well. Kristin Scott Thomas (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), as Nelly’s worldly mother, rounds out the cast in what may be her least-glamorous role to date, but also one of her most intricate.

This is a slow movie—or perhaps I should say, “deliberately paced.”  The affair between Dickens and Ternan unfolds at a glacial pace, forced as it is to negotiate Victorian England’s labyrinthine hang-ups and hypocrisies on all issues gendered and sexual. If you’re looking for action, you won’t find it here. But if you want a film you can really sink into, one that will immerse you in a gorgeously realized vision of yesteryear while also engaging you with a full range of human complexity, The Invisible Woman may be the film for you.

The special features are the usual fare—a commentary track with Fiennes and Jones, who also take the stage in a SAG Foundation conversation. Fiennes gives due credit to the book by Claire Tomalin (also called The Invisible Woman) that provides the source material for the film, and confesses early on to having known little about Dickens and less about his writing going into the filmmaking process. Perhaps it’s this fresh perspective that has allowed Fiennes to offer such a compelling take on Dickens the fallible man, rather than a fan-boy’s perspective of Dickens the Great Writer.


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About Gwen

Gwen Cooper is a movie and TV lover and the author of Homer's Odyssey (no, not the one you're thinking of).