A fascinating true story becomes a deeply repressed movie in the hands of writer Morgan (The Iron Lady) and actor-director Fiennes. It looks and feels murky and dull, and because it's trying to keep everything under the surface never quite reveals anything about the characters or situations. What's left is the intriguing story itself, some strong acting and a lush attention to period detail.
It starts in the 1850s, as Charles Dickens (Fiennes) revels in his celebrity status, adored by fans as he produces the play The Frozen Deep with his rogue buddy Wilkie Collins (Hollander). Then Charles develops a crush on 18-year-old actress Nellie (Jones), who is encouraged by her mother (Scott Thomas) to pursue the affair. But as they fall in love, there's a problem: divorce is unthinkable in Victorian society, so Charles separates from his angry wife (Scanlan) and keeps his relationship with Nellie hidden. And 30 years later, Nellie is still haunted by the experience, even though she now has a family with her loving husband George (Burke).
Fiennes makes the odd decision not to age Nellie at all: Jones looks the same in 1850 as she does in 1880, so the scenes set three decades later don't quite make sense. And there's also the problem that the affair between Charles and Nellie feels like it lasted about two years, when in reality it was 13. These things leave us perplexed about pretty much everything on-screen, unable to engage with the characters or their emotions. It doesn't help that the relationship is clearly doomed from the start, so Fiennes and Jones can never generate any real chemistry or emotion. In fact, they seem barely able to stand each other. Much better are the feisty supporting turns from Hollander, Scanlan and especially Scott Thomas.
Morgan's script also makes the mistake of leaving every key event off-screen. This may echo 19th century literature, but it leaves 21st century audiences cold. Perhaps Fiennes and Morgan were aiming for something evocative and dark like The Piano, especially with the moody music (by Ilan Eshkeri) and drab but lavishly textured production design. But by refusing to reveal even a spark of Charles and Nellie's "invisible" passion, the film never lets us into the story at all. So it's hard to care what happens to them.
Run time: 111 mins
In Theaters: Friday 21st February 2014
Box Office USA: $1.2M
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
Production compaines: Taeoo Entertainment, BBC Films, Headline Pictures, Magnolia Mae Films
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 77%
Fresh: 108 Rotten: 33
IMDB: 6.2 / 10
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Producer: Christian Baute, Carolyn Marks Blackwood, Stewart Mackinnon, Gabrielle Tana
Screenwriter: Abi Morgan
Starring: Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens, Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan, Joanna Scanlan as Catherine Dickens, Kristin Scott Thomas as Catherine Ternan, Tom Hollander as Wilkie Collins, Michelle Fairley as Caroline Graves, John Kavanagh as Reverend Benham, James Michael Rankin as Evening Man, Charlotte Hope as Prostitute, Michael Marcus as Charley Dickens, Laurence Spellman as Porter, Jonathan Harden as Mr. Arnott, Christos Lawton as Mr. Evans, Claire Daly as Mrs. Lambourne
Also starring: Tom Burke