IT'S TOO BAD The Invisible Woman is so stubbornly unfun, because it's got all the makings of a lavish, juicy period piece. The subject matter is suitably racy—the secret affairs of Charles Dickens!—but under the direction of star Ralph Fiennes, it's a self-serious, dreary affair.
The plot, in brief: At the height of his fame, Dickens (Fiennes) kept a young mistress, Nelly (Felicity Jones), with the full knowledge, if not outright consent, of his wife. Though he was open about the relationship in his personal life, he took great pains to scrub his public life of any trace of Nelly's presence. Hence the overblown title, which positions Nelly as a marginalized, cloistered mistress instead of a woman who willingly entered into a relationship with a man with whom she was smitten. In Fiennes' telling, Nelly essentially lacks agency—while this might have been an interesting story, The Invisible Woman tells it in a profoundly uninteresting way.
The Invisible Woman's plot unfolds entirely in flashbacks, wherein, as an adult, Nelly remembers her youthful dalliance with Dickens. Given that we know from the film's framing that Nelly will land on her feet—she now lives in a comfortable house with a kind husband and cute children—the stakes are quite low during her affair. It's also tough to credit the film's bid for serious character development when nothing actually happens.
As a director, Fiennes is over-enamored with Jones' face—Jones is fine in the role of a pretty young thing, but her face doesn't convey the volumes that Fiennes seems to think it does, as his camera lingers relentlessly on her vague, vacant expressions. She spends much of the film striding purposefully on the beach, looking coy and confused. It's all so serious, yet so superficial at the same time.