The Invisible Woman Movie Review

Featuring: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas, Perdita Weeks, Amanda Hale, Joanna Scanlan
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Writers: Abi Morgan (screenplay), based on Claire Tomalin’s biography
Australian release date: Now showing (Perth residents check venues here)

Reviewer: Karen
Verdict: Slow, gorgeous interpretation that might have played out very differently in reality.

Literary superstar Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) takes a young actress, Ellen Ternan (Felicity Jones), as his mistress.

We know where we are here, in the comfortable territory of the British costume drama, with the added interest of potentially salacious biographical detail about a celebrity. In fact it’s trash mag territory, with our curiosity made respectable by the passage of time and the fact that the celebrity in question was a literary giant – Charles Dickens – rather than a supermodel or reality television ‘star’. Well, I’m not going to complain about that: clearly it is human nature to be interested in other people. But I have my qualms about the biopic genre. It’s dramatised documentary, and for the sake of a satisfying artistic whole, much must be imagined in the realisation and some must be ignored. Fair enough, but what if what’s ignored is completely at odds with the thematic purport of the imagined story?

That’s what might have happened here, in The Invisible Woman. The woman of the title is Ellen (or Nelly) Ternan, a young woman from a theatrical family who became the mistress of Charles Dickens. She’s invisible because the evidence of their relationship was largely destroyed by the Dickens family; this film is based on the recent biography of Nelly by Claire Tomalin. I haven’t read this biography, but I’ve done some quick reading about Ternan and Dickens to satisfy my curiosity after seeing the film, and what I read certainly makes me question the interpretation here.

First things first, however: this is a fine, if slow, film. The narrative, framed as it is in the context of the older Nelly’s grief – secret and suppressed as it must be – about the past relationship, advances in very nicely realised chapters as Nelly reminisces privately, and later confides in a sympathetic acquaintance.

The exposition is beautifully done. The Ternan women, actresses all, mother Frances (Kristin Scott Thomas), sisters Maria and Fanny (Perdita Weeks and Amanda Hale) and Ellen, take parts in Dickens’s friend Wilkie Collins’s play, The Frozen Deep. Dickens was at this stage already a household name, famed for his novels: to be noticed by him was something. Ellen is indeed noticed after she delivers the epilogue of the play with no pizzazz whatsoever. Dickens is smitten. He befriends the family, who are struggling to make a living on the stage and whose options are few. One sister is set up with a governess job; another has talent. Nelly must accept a bitter truth about herself in order to face her own destiny (if that’s what it is) as Dickens’s mistress. The unfortunate lot of women is acknowledged without being unduly emphasised, and the sad reality is that if Nelly and Dickens are to be together, it will be a hole-and-corner affair, where she can never be publicly recognised as his spouse.

The relationship is shown to be a deep, passionate meeting of true minds. Dickens repudiates his wife (and the mother of his ten children) and humiliates her to boot. One of the best scenes in the film shows Catherine Dickens (Joanna Scanlan) visiting Nelly to transfer a gift wrongly delivered to her (and this apparently actually happened); the two actresses are superb in portraying the women – both mortified beyond imagining – behaving towards each other with grace and dignity.

It’s all beautiful to watch too: the costumes and settings are sumptuous, and place us very firmly in the period where divorce was impossible, as were the alternatives. Nelly lives in that impossible space, and then, when it’s all over, it’s as if it never happened.

So, back to the problem with biopics – and if you are concerned about spoilers, stop reading here and come back after seeing the film. The imagined story here is one of a passionate affair between a powerful male celebrity and a younger, vulnerable female fan. Nelly is star struck and for reasons of expediency as well as of personal desire – she certainly is sexually awakened at his hands – she is willing to assume the shadowy status of mistress. Dickens adores her and defends her honour but still wants something in return for his support. There is tenderness and commitment that resonates years later after Dickens’s death, when Nelly, married and with young children, cannot express her grief and guilt over the lost, secret relationship.

Nice. Deep. But do a bit of reading and you will find out that while Dickens was weathering the storm over Nelly, he was also denying rumours of a relationship with his wife’s sister, who became his housekeeper in a separate household. It bothered me that this was not mentioned even in passing. But there is simply not room in a screenplay for every fact, and to tell the story with conviction the creative team must select a path to follow and ignore side-tracks – at least in this kind of narrative.

It might not bother you. Does it? Is it too soon for filmmakers to put words in the mouths of long-dead real people, and tell a story, the facts of which are sparse but reasonably clear, while the motives and details have been obscured on purpose by the very same people? Personally I think I’d prefer to see a documentary, or perhaps a less traditional narrative that acknowledged what it didn’t know, or perhaps offered alternative interpretations. It’s easy to sympathise with young Nelly who was 17 going on 18 when this was all happening, but I could also sympathise with and credit a much less naïve young woman – a working actress after all – who weighed up her options in Victorian England and made a clear choice, and agonised over it much less afterwards.

In the meantime, The Invisible Woman is what we have, and I recommend it. Enjoy the imagined story, the clothing, the hairstyles, the set decoration, the women’s earrings, and Dickens’s garnet shirt stud. Then go to the library and order in Claire Tomalin’s biography of Ellen Ternan and see how your imagined story compares.

For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives

Only Lovers Left Alive Movie Review

Featuring: Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin, John Hurt
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Movie website:
Australian release date: April 17, 2014

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A fun ride but too cool for school, with more to chew on aesthetically than cerebrally.

Vampires Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), lovers for centuries, are currently living separate lives in Detroit and Tangier respectively. Adam spends his nights writing and recording dark-toned rock music in his isolated, run-down, double-storey outer suburban house. He is mired in depression over the mess the “zombies” (humans) are making of the world, and a concerned Eve flies to Detroit to be with him. Their reunion is disrupted when Eve’s irresponsible, hedonistic and reckless younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) lobs on them unannounced. Forced to flee the consequences of the havoc she wreaks, Adam reluctantly relocates to Eve’s place in Tangier, but there they face unexpected crises.

Things have moved on for vampires in Jim Jarmusch’s 21st century take on the genre. Feeding au naturale carries the risk of ingesting diseased or contaminated blood, so Adam and Eve score pure blood smuggled from hospitals. It’s all so much more civilised than in ol’ Dracula’s day. These modern vamps sip the precious red from expensive wine goblets, savouring every viscous drop, which is not just life sustaining but induces a state of intense euphoria. Addiction has never looked so stylish. Continue reading

The Grand Budapest Hotel Movie Review

Featuring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori (Zero), Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jude Law, Edward Norton, Bill Murray.
Director: Wes Anderson
Writer: Wes Anderson
Movie website:
Australian release date: April 10, 2014

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: Classic comedy like they useta make, channeled through Wes Anderson in his inimitable style, and featuring a wonderful lead character wonderfully performed.

An English writer (Jude Law) spending some time on the Continent books in at the once elegant and celebrated but now rundown Grand Budapest Hotel, and gets talking to elderly owner Zero. Over dinner, Zero reminisces on the halcyon days of the hotel in the 30s, when as a young immigrant lobby boy (Tony Revolori) he was taken under the wing of eccentric concierge Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes). The sad old man relives his adventures, explaining via a long twisting chain of cause, effect and surprise revelations how he eventually came to own the hotel, and why he keeps it open despite its fall from glory to near-dereliction and few guests.

Wes Anderson’s unique and readily identifiable style is stamped all over this movie: the fictitious locale (the mountainous Republic of Zubrowka, somewhere in Europe); cameo appearances from a long list of notable actors (including Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Jude Law and Edward Norton); ornate set designs featuring a rich palette of colours that seem to be filtered through faintly sepia-toned lenses; and a mad-cap tragi-comic tale with off-beat characters, served with a spoonful or two of slapstick and silliness, and tempered with irony. Continue reading

Like Father, Like Son Movie Review

Featuring: Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono, Yôko Maki, Rirî Furankî, Keita Ninomiya, Shogen Hwang
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Writer: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Movie website:

2013-14 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival season dates:
Somerville: 31 March–6 April, 7.30pm
Joondalup Pines: 8–13 April, 7.30pm

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A gentle, superbly written and extremely moving family drama from a master of the form.

Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) is an ambitious and driven Tokyo architect whose work demands leave him little quality time for his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) and 6-year-old son Keita (Keita Ninomiya). Out of the blue comes the shocking news that Keita is not theirs, having been switched at birth. They meet up with the Saikis, the family who received their true son, Ryusei (Shogen Hwang). The parents (Yoko Maki and Rirî Furankî) are an unaffected couple of modest means with several other children. The families agree to take back their genetic sons, and Ryota insists that there be no further interaction between them. However, the child swap does not go smoothly, and he is forced to re-assess his priorities and parenting approach.

Director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s previous films include the heart-rending Nobody Knows and the thoroughly charming I Wish. Disappointment so often follows high expectations, but not here. In Like Father, Like Son Kore-eda has yet again delivered a gentle, masterfully written and extremely moving family drama. Continue reading

My Sweet Pepper Land Movie Review

Featuring: Korkmaz Arslan, Golshifteh Farahani, Suat Usta
Director: Hiner Saleem
Writer: Hiner Saleem, Antoine Lacomblez
Movie website:

2013-14 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival season dates:
Joondalup Pines: 1–6 April, 7.30pm

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A gripping off-axis contemporary Iraqi western (eastern?), intriguing for its enigmatic tone, and exotic cultural and geographical setting in remote Kurdistan.

Post-Saddam, Kurdish ex-resistance fighter Baran (Korkmaz Arslan) is in search of a meaningful peacetime challenge. A transfer request lands him a position as sheriff in a remote village in Kurdistan near the Turkish border, bringing him into conflict with the local warlord, Aziz Aga (Tarik Akreyi), and his badass gun-totin’ crew. Aziz and co resent any encroachment on their territory by agents of change, and there are a few of them other than Baran. There is educated and independent-minded schoolteacher Govand (Golshifteh Farahani), who shares Baran’s lodgings (and, it is suspected, his bed) and defiantly persists in her mission to provide local children with an education. Then there is a female band of anti-Turk resistance fighters holed up in the surrounding hill country. With power, control and illegal business interests in jeopardy, a showdown between Aziz’ crew and opposing forces is inevitable.

This is a classic western narrative setup: a tough new sheriff arrives in a far-flung town to clean up the lawless elements and impose law and order. There are pictures of his predecessors on the wall, all of whom have left defeated or been killed by the bad guys. There’s a beautiful feisty single woman, like the lawman a tough-minded idealist from the big smoke, except that her civilising mission is to educate the local kids despite the ‘discouragement’ of the bad guys. Needless to say, the town ain’t near big enough for the lot of them.

While the shape of the narrative is obviously borrowed from the American western, this is a twisted, exotic version of that familiar form, off-beat and off-key – and all the more intriguing for that. Continue reading