It's unfair but inevitable: You hope a film about a writer's life will be as interesting and exciting and high-stakes as the scribe's own work. But biopics rarely live up to the standards set by an artist's oeuvre, which is testament to the formidable challenge of forcing plot and structure on what is, in reality, sprawling and formless. And so we have Ralph Fiennes' The Invisible Woman, starring Fiennes as Charles Dickens and Felicity Jones as his mistress and muse, which not surprisingly lacks the uneven though undeniable charm of a Dickens novel.
The film tells the story of aspiring actress Nelly Ternan, who at age 18 falls in love with Dickens, then the unhappily married father of 10 children. As the film begins, though, it's nearly three decades later and Dickens is long dead. Nelly, now the wife of a schoolmaster, is directing a group of young boys in a production of a Wilkie Collins play, which reminds her of meeting Dickens for the first time on…wait for it…the set of another Collins play. Despite the heavy-handed framing device, the movie is basically an extended flashback interrupted once in a while by scenes of an older Nelly, walking frustrated and breathless on a beach. It's difficult to see what exactly Nelly has to be so unhappy about, particularly when you compare her life to the plight of Catherine Dickens (Joanna Scanlan), Dickens' sweetly sad wife. If The Invisible Woman is to be believed, Catherine was not only charged with delivering a beautiful and expensive bracelet to her husband's mistress—this fraught tête-à-tête is one of the movie's greatest pleasures—but also learned about Dickens' decision to ditch her by reading about it in The Times.
The performances are first-rate—Fiennes and Jones are stellar, as are Kristin Scott Thomas as Nelly's mother and Tom Hollander as playwright Collins—and the score and period details are sumptuous. But the film still drags, saved neither by this juiciest of scandals—infidelity in the age of angels in the house—nor by a dramatic and surprising train crash midway through. What's missing is a Miss Havisham or a Fagin or even an Ebenezer Scrooge to breathe real life into it.
Critic's Grade: B-
SEE IT: The Invisible Woman is rated R. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.