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Film Review

The Invisible Woman

Many scholars believe that Charles Dickens was the greatest English writer of the 19th Century and certainly the greatest Victorian novelist. He wrote 20 novels, hundreds of short stories and non fiction pieces, and edited a weekly journal. Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations are the most enduring and all hugely influential. His novels were published in paper bound installments, and thousands would flock to buy the latest release. Sometimes he would listen to comments or criticism of his writing, and would alter the story or characters, which was made easier by the initial serial publication before they were bound into books. He grew up very poor, his father in debtor's prison, and was forced to leave school and work in a boot blacking compound factor. Dickens' childhood poverty made him very sympathetic to the plight of the poor in Victorian England, a time when there were virtually no social welfare safety nets. He was outspoken publicly about the exploitation of the poor by the rich and for social justice, a theme in much of his writing. He even spoke out forcefully against slavery in America. None of these attitudes were popular in Victorian England yet his public loved him. His characters were dramatic and memorable, most drawn from real life, and some became eponymous, such as Scrooge. His public readings of his novels attracted thousands and included several trips to America. These readings were a lucrative source of income. He died, relatively young at 58, in 1870.

Ralph Fiennes, the noted English actor ("Schindler's List", "The English Patient", Coriolanus"), and lately, director ("Coriolanus") has just released "The Invisible Woman". He tells a relatively unknown story of Dickens' secret mistress, the actress Ellen Ternan. The film opens with a Dickens' quote: "A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other" (A Tale of Two Cities), which as we see, is ironic. Then a stunning panorama of the ocean side, the tide out, exposing wide sand beaches. At a distance we see a woman dressed in black, walking quickly across the beach. The camera comes closer and we see her determined stride. She walks hurriedly into a school, where a play she is directing is about to begin. She kisses her husband, the headmaster, hello. And then a flashback to her reflection in a train window as she is traveling through the countryside. Continuing the flashback, Dickens goes to a play, when he is introduced to the three actress daughters of an renown older actress, played by Kristin Scott Thomas. The youngest, Ellen, played by Felicity Jones, is only 18 but a beauty and in love with Dickens' writing. She quotes long passages easily and Dickens is taken with her. But Dickens is a married man with 10 children. His wife, Catherine, as presented in the film, is solid, dull, long suffering, yet still good humored and willing to put up with her husband's contempt and often cruel behavior. These scenes show the ironic contrast between the personal and public side of Dickens, although he was a genuinely philanthropic person who did much to help the poor. The story continues and in general follows the historical record, with frequent flashbacks that help us understand the present.

Fiennes is a force of nature here, with that magnificent style of acting that only the English do so well because they have spent so much time on the stage. Even his appearance has an uncanny resemblance to photographs of Dickens. He is well partnered with Felicity Jones ("Like Crazy"), a talented English actress, who convincingly plays a young Ellen Ternan, trying to reconcile head with heart. And like so many good English films, even the minor characters are well drawn. The cinematography is simply magnificent, not only the outdoor scenes, and with great attention paid to creating Victorian interiors. The furniture and lighting are correct for the period (on this I am knowledgeable), and the costuming accurate and well done. Many of the scenes are interiors, which are dark because the film tries to approximate light levels from oil lamps. These interior scenes often have dramatic chiaroscuro, which reminded me of Baroque paintings. It is so atmospheric. The visuals are fabulous; I just don't know how a film could be more beautiful. Overall, the tone of the film is elegiac with a very restrained use of music. Fiennes does indeed show us a well intentioned, very talented writer, but conflicted and flawed. I loved "The Invisible Woman" and will probably see it again. It will surely earn a number of Oscar nominations, including Best Director and Best Actor. Running time: 111 minutes. Playing at the Embarcadero only (for now) and really should be seen on the big screen.

Because of the year end releases, there are now six outstanding films screening at the Embarcadero: "The Invisible Woman", "Inside Lleweyn Davis", "Philomena", Nebraska", "12 Years a Slave", and "Dallas Buyers Club". No doubt that every one of these films will get at least one Oscar nomination. I have never seen such a concentration of good films in one theater. Take advantage of it.

Ciao, Ian

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