Period pieces….sumptuous…usually visually stunning…not everyone’s cup of tea…sometimes slow…is a film genre which is wide, but has dedicated fans…for all these reasons period films are a tricky undertaking for a director.
Here the director is well-known and respected British actor Ralph Fiennes. The oft seen as dark and brooding elder Fiennes, while well known for his impressive and varied film career, has not gone behind the camera too often with The Invisible Woman, released in 2013, being only his second after the William Shakespeare based Coriolanus in 2011. All that to say he is not the most experienced director. Wisely he has surrounded himself with plenty of talent and experience.
Here we get a version of the story of a short section of the life of British author Charles Dickens. The film is based on the novel by Claire Tomalin with help by screenwriter Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady), who is an experienced and Emmy Award winning writer. In front of the camera you get Fiennes himself alongside Kristen Scott Thomas, Felicity Jones and Perdita Weeks.
Being an actress in London in the 1850s is a risky undertaking and yet an entire family of women have done just that. Mrs. Frances Ternan (Kristen Scott Thomas – Gosford Park, Four Weddings and a Funeral) along with her daughters Nelly (Felicity Jones – Inferno, The Aeronauts) and Maria (Perdita Weeks – from television’s Magnum P.I.) all are theatre actors.
While performing they come to the notice of author Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes – The Constant Gardener, Schindler’s List) and by they, I mean Nelly catches his eye. After negotiating with her mother, Charles, who is bored with his wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan – Notes on a Scandal, Girl with the Pearl Earring), begins to groom the much younger Nelly as his mistress.
Now, being his mistress brings Nelly into a world which she had previously only seen from the outside. But it is not all positive as she is still only the other woman. Plus she sees how emotionally cruel (to his wife) the man she is with can be. As such, she is determined to keep their relationship as secret as possible.
As is required, Fiennes keeps his and the film’s portrayal of the famous author rather refined and subtle. Mostly because it is required as little is known about his actual relationship with Nelly, so this is just dramatic recreation. Though that is a slippery slope as things seem to happen without any context. Rendering words said and behaviours devoid of meaning. What films about the private lives of famous people often suffer from. Though if you are not a Dickens expert then it will just be a story of an older, well off man taking on a younger woman as a lover.
What Fiennes the director does well is allow his actors to place layers and breath into the characters they are bringing to the screen. The camera is unobtrusive, doesn’t distract you from the goings on. Just allows you to take in the strong performances by the actors. Also, as required, the set and costumes are beautiful. All this together gives us the opportunity to fully immerse ourselves into the story and the period.
Streaming on the Roku Channel.