Review: The Invisible Woman

The Invisible Woman
The Invisible Woman, 2013. DIR. Ralph Fiennes. Starring: Felicity Jones, Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Tom Hollander, Joanna Scanlan

Despite being Ralph Fiennes’ second directorial effort, with himself starring as acclaimed novelist, philanthropist and public figure Charles Dickens, this is the story of how Nelly Ternan became his lover, and this is Felicity Jones’ film.

It is she that the film opens and closes with, as we find Nelly operating under a different name, working as a teacher and telling her husband Dickens was a childhood acquaintance. It is her anguish, isolation and desire that the Abi Morgan penned (based on Claire Tomalin’s novel) biopic explores and through her position as Dickens’ lover, muse and confidante that we discover the women that lived in the shadow of a national treasure.

From the moment we observe Nelly’s all-black ensemble, slightly aged face and brisk walking pace across a vast and empty beach, there is a sense of her being haunted by the past. Thus, when the film takes us back to Dickens’ and Nelly’s first meeting, there interaction thereafter is tainted with the torment and tragedy that is to follow.

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Felicity Jones turns in a mesmerising, heart-wrenching performance as the beguiling ingénue, who captivates the self-absorbed Dickens with her clarity and sensitivity. Her subtlety and sadness match the tone of the film perfectly, both saying more in glances stolen, and secrets untold.

The scenes between Nelly and Charles are refreshingly non-sexual, and focus on their intellectual compatibility rather than their bedroom antics. Indeed, one particular scene that sees Nelly torn between her love for Charles and her social reputation shows incredible restraint in not allowing the protagonists to kiss. The longing gazes and yearning caresses are tantalisingly painful to watch; the characters almost afraid to cross a line from which there is no turning back.

After flamboyant, vivid turns in The Grand Budapest Hotel and Coriolanus, Fiennes demonstrates his versatility as both a director, and actor, who has accomplished restraint and delicacy in his treatment of this romantic partnership. His Charles’ is vexing, cruel, and narcissistic; a man who boards up half of his house to physically separate himself from his long-suffering wife Catherine, who admits he loves his audience more than his family. And yet, his passion, joie de vivre, and seemingly genuine interest in the welfare of the underclass, allows us to understand Nelly’s attraction to him. the-invisible-woman-2013-img01

Their relationship is at once paternalistic (a facet perhaps aided by the fact Fiennes and Jones played father and daughter in 2010’s Cemetery Junction) and tender. Conversations had by candlelight and secluded country walks cement a romanticism, rather than perversity to their pairing – she was 18, and he 45 when they met. And both actors bring these real people back to life with assurance, charm and poignancy.

Fantastic support is found in the performances of Kristin Scott-Thomas, as Nelly’s reluctantly complicit mother; Tom Hollander, as Dickens’ friend and colleague – himself living with a mistress and finally, and the astounding Joanna Scanlan as Dicken’s rejected wife. Her finest moment comes when she is forced to confront Nelly upon Charles’ order to deliver a present to her. Ouch, indeed.

The pacing of the film is almost irritatingly languid, with Fiennes choosing to focus a great deal more on their introduction and gradual getting to know one another, rather than their actual relationship – which is in fact boiled down to the denouement.

Nevertheless, the film manages to wonderfully capture the Victorian era, replete with 4am revelry, the poverty of the working class and the restrictions and shame that women were subjected to. And as with many period dramas that detail the difficult of a forbidden affair, potency is found in the moments and words left unsaid. Fiennes’ acknowledges this to devastating effect.

Verdict: Assured and sensitive, there are echoes of ‘Bright Star’ and ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ as Fiennes’ painstakingly unravels the makings of a forgotten muse. With a keen grasp of the novelist’s talent and influence, as well as the era, The Invisible Woman makes for an aesthetically pleasing and engaging, if not entirely pleasurable cinematic experience.

Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

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DIR. Wes Anderson. STARRING: Pretty much everyone, ever. Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Tilda Swinton, Saoirse Ronan, Tom Wilkinson, Adrien Brody, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Lea Seydoux, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Mathieu Amalric, other people.

Wes Anderson films are an acquired taste – frequently kitsch, long and frustratingly quirky – you are either a devoted fan, or perpetually bemused.

The Grand Budapest Hotel situates itself very comfortably amongst Anderson’s oeuvre and will no doubt be equally divisive. But for those of you whom are fans of the indulgent director’s sense of spectacle and folly are in for a TREAT.

In the prelude to the prelude, a young girl pays respects to the statue of a renowned author, whom we are then introduced to in living form as Tom Wilkinson, and then again in his younger self as Jude Law. The ever-complex structure that is Anderson’s storytelling is in full swing here, and the story within a story (within a story?) allows for nostalgia and hyperbole to manifest in seductive form. Jude Law meets Zero Moustafa (F Murray Abraham and Tony Revolori) once the hotel is well past its peak and resembles The Shining in its eerie sparseness of guests and gaudy decor. It is through the eyes of Moustafa as told by the Author that we meet the indomitable and utterly fantastic Gustave H; a man as absurd as he is debonair.

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Rewind to the 1930s and to the hotel’s golden era with its luxuriously pastel exterior and opulent interiors reflective of the Belle Epoque. And master of it all is Ralph Fiennes whom looks like he’s having the time of his life as cavorting concierge Gustave. Moustachioed, meticulous and occasionally potty-mouthed, he careens about the hotel with authority, swagger and purpose. He is the life and soul of the hotel, servicing his guests in more ways than one – with particular interest in the elder, richer clientele (“when you’re young it’s all fillet steak, and then you have to move on to cheaper cuts”, Gustave says of his taste for vintage women, in brilliantly cutting style). He adopts Moustafa, a teenage lobby boy orphaned by war as his protégé and proceeds to instruct him on being the perfect concierge – anticipating needs, being at once invisible and ever available and able to fulfill any task at the drop of a hat.

The real plot begins with a freakishly aged Tilda Swinton as Madame D (“dynamite in the sack”), who turns out to be Gustave’s lover and upon her death bestows him with ‘Boy with Apple’ a prized painting among her eccentric money-grabbing family, at the centre of whom is her sinister son Dmitri (Adrien Brody). After being accused of her murder, Gustave, employing the help of Moustafa, sets out to clear his name. So begins the action/heist element of Grand Budapest, replete with art theft, a prison escape, cable-car rides, a sledge-chase, a farcical shoot-out and a flying cat.

It is a buddy-caper film and period drama rolled into one, though genre is almost pointless to label a Wes Anderson film.

His directorial style is arguably a genre all by itself. Anderson after all is an unbridled, and unrepentant aesthete who revels in that which is sumptuous and styled to perfection.

One just has to look at the flawless intricacy of the pastries Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) bakes, replete with individual wrapping and a bow; or the vividly purple suits worn by Gustave, precisely tailored and as straight as the lines in which Anderson’s camera moves. Every frame is tinged with his unique perspective and eye for detail.

Reminiscent of Georges Melies in its technical wizardry and elaborate set constructions, Anderson never shies away from artifice and the scenery often looks more picture-postcard than real. A choice no doubt intentional. A critique often leveled at the director is that his aesthetic is too calculated, fussy and pristine. Everything is exacting and no room is left for spontaneity. But I would argue that this in fact channels the operation of a hotel immeasurably. Hotels are strange liminal spaces, where one often goes to escape reality and to exchange the quotidian with grandeur and excess. There are people to cater to every need, beds flawlessly made and endless, uncluttered corridors. It is a calculated, seamless and mechanical operation. Both the hotel and Anderson’s direction.

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And the richness of dialogue, scenery and detail seems testament to Anderson’s love for, and mourning, of the decadent fin-de-siecle period. This is after all a film lamenting the decline of civilisation; for all its wit and joviality, it is laced with startling violence – and sadness. There are equal parts magic and melancholy.

Every facet of this film is one drenched in resplendence. The musical score composed by Alexandre Desplat is quaint, ethereal and charming with plinking piano notes and playful strumming. There are clear folk music influences – said to be Russian – but with an air of percussive exoticism. It feels other-worldly, opulent and slightly melancholic for a bygone era where Viennese waltzing was something everyone knew how to do; the score thus complements the elegiac and idiosyncratic atmosphere of the film perfectly.

The costuming is also impeccable, from the aforementioned violet concierge suits to the expertly groomed moustaches. Lea Seydoux’s French maid’s outfit, Willem Dafoe’s floor-length leather trench and Tilda Swinton’s fur-lined, red velveteen coat are particular highlights among a plethora of well-dressed characters.

And finally the performances are a treasure trove of parody, absurdity and perfect comic-timing. Newcomer Tony Revolori holds his own magnificently against Ralph Fiennes, with whom he shares most of his screen time. It would be easy to disappear into the background when matched with Fiennes’ hysterical, career curve-balling performance, but the young Moustafa is likeable, sympathetic and very watchable, especially when chastising Gustave for flirting with his fiancée Agatha.

ImageImageThere are more cameos than you can shake a stick at, with Anderson’s cohort of returning actors growing larger. You could argue that such small roles given to such big talent is a waste, and perhaps a distraction (see Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave for how NOT to cast a star in a film), however Anderson is very wise in his casting and if anything the variety of cameos add to magic and chaos of the film. Particularly notable are Edward Norton as a bumbling police officer channelling Inspector Clouseau, Harvey Keitel as the tattooed convict and fellow prison escapee and a quite frankly terrifying Willem Dafoe as Dmitri’s hitman of sort. That is of course, not to take away from the several other exquisitely attuned performances throughout the film, with every actor immersing themselves in the characters and the world it’s easy to forget whom they are. Yes Tilda, I’m looking at you.

Of course, the star of the show is the surprisingly uproarious Mr. Fiennes. It’s rare to see him in a comic role, with his CV rather generous with its uber-villains, tortured lovers and po-faced parts. Of course, In Bruges and Skyfall, if not just his immense talent, proved he could handle deadpan humour. But I wonder if anyone knew he could do it so well. He is a sheer delight to watch in action, and delivers each with line with eloquence, panache and conviction, even when – or especially when – peppered with ‘darlings’. Every gesture, curled lip or disgruntled expression is a wonder to behold and quite frankly watching Ralph Fiennes do high-camp will never fail to be entertaining.

Some have labelled The Grand Budapest Hotel a masterpiece, and I would be inclined to agree. This is a film as elaborate, delicious and multi-layered as the cakes Agatha slaves over at Mendl’s and as exhilarating as the ridiculous sledge-chase that initiates a fabulous confrontation between Fiennes and Dafoe. The immaculate facade that is Zubrowska, or the hotel itself may create a fictional world, but it is not an inaccessible one. For all the callousness and greed, there is kindness and tenderness and perhaps most of all beauty.

Check in, stay awhile and indulge in unadulterated chaotic splendour.