Not-So-Great Expectations 

The Invisible Woman is, unfortunately, not a Dickens of a film

The Invisible Woman runs 111 minutes--and that's about 100 minutes too long.

I wanted to like this movie, honest, I did. In fact, I was one of the first to queue for last September's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

While waiting, I kept asking myself, "What's not to like?" Plenty, it turns out.

The theme of the movie is fascinating: a pot-boiling tale of Charles Dickens' 13-year secret romance with a married woman. Based on Claire Tomalin's scandalous 1990 expose of the then-45-year-old Dickens, at the height of his popularity, and his seduction of 18-year-old Nelly Ternan. The obsession, according to Tomalin, destroyed Dickens' marriage but also mysteriously resulted in Ternan's near-excision from history or public record.

The book is a fine piece of sleuthing. Unfortunately, the film is a dud.

To be clear, I take a backseat to no one in my affection for a good costume drama. I adore the Merchant Ivory Productions (Howards End), any of E.M. Forster's novels (A Room With a View) and, of course, the PBS blockbuster Downton Abbey. And while the set decorations and costumes in The Invisible Woman are superb (costumer Michael O'Connor was nominated for an Oscar), the film's screenplay is colorless.

The Invisible Woman opens, quite convincingly with the beautiful and enigmatic Nelly striding across a wind-swept beach in Southeast England. The scene instantly recalls the opening flourishes of The French Lieutenant's Woman, another big-screen narrative of forbidden love. Alas, The Invisible Woman quickly slows to a crawl and, while the costumes and sets hold up their part of the bargain, the film's actors are left to look like... well, actors. Not for a moment did I believe the all-star cast--including Ralph Fiennes (as Dickens), Felicity Jones (as Nelly)--were true inhabitants of the Victorian Age.

Perhaps my greatest disappointment was that The Invisible Woman left so many rich veins unmined. For example, Dickens was a shrewd, modern man, carefully crafting a conservative public persona; yet his intense lust for a much younger woman was hidden by his facade. In one pivotal scene, we see that Dickens and Nelly are passengers in a train that is involved in a terrible wreck. Yet, when Nelly is severely injured, Dickens drifts away from her in fear that the needed attention to her wounds might publicly reveal their intimacy.

Fiennes was in front of and behind the lens for The Invisible Woman, his second directorial effort--following 2011's Coriolanus-- and to his credit, Fiennes has a good eye for satisfying scene transitions, something rarely seen from newer directors.

But, instead of a straightforward narrative, Fiennes chooses to ping-pong backward and forward through time--a conventional device that, if successful, can provide some closure to a well-told story. But the nonlinear style never pays off and eventually feels too contrived.

While some may find the pacing of The Invisible Woman to be precise and crisp, it felt overly starched, in spite of its visual splendor. After reading the original source material from Tomalin's marvelous book, I was anxious to better understand the complexity of Charles Dickens. Unfortunately, those great expectations were never met.

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