After only two films as director, Ralph Fiennes has revealed an intelligent style all of his own.
To date, Ralph Fiennes has directed two films, 2011’s Coriolanus and The Invisible Woman, released this week across the UK. Both have striking similarities and contradictions, and both clearly show Fiennes is an intelligent filmmaker for a mature audience. He doesn’t appear to be making movies to crowd-please, but isn’t attempting to alienate audiences either. For both, he has taken classic stories and made them relevant to today.
In telling the tale of The Invisible Woman, Fiennes does so not in a classical period style, but in a distinctly contemporary way
The first, Coriolanus, is a lesser-known Shakespearian text with themes of social divide and corrupt political leaders, themes that strongly resonate in contemporary society. It highlights Fiennes’s strong understanding of the text, through his ability to update them from their period roots to a modern setting. Fiennes understood Shakespeare’s populist idea in writing his plays, and also for them not to remain amongst the intellectual elite. The Invisible Woman, on the other hand, is about the classic British novelist Charles Dickens’s affair with actress Nelly Ternan. In telling this tale, Fiennes does so not in a classical period style, but in a distinctly contemporary way.
Since the latter half of the 20th Century, and ever more aggressively since the dawn of the internet age, there has been an attitude of demystifying celebrities by making them more like ‘us’ and highlighting their blemishes. So while it was common in the Victorian era for men to have had mistresses, The Invisible Woman still portrays an unflattering image of Dickens. He is cold towards his wife, overtly flirtatious with other women and he views women in general as commodities. He is always seeking approval from his female counterparts, but is generally not interested in what they have to say about themselves.
In addition, by making the film a subjective flashback, via the character of Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), it allows the audience to see how Charles Dickens may have been seen by those whom he was emotionally intimate with. This is not done with a patronising narration from Ternan, but through a careful execution on how to portray her time with Dickens. This is through omitting some of Dickens’s darker moments, but Fiennes, again, entrusts his audience will understand this and benefit from the experience.
Fiennes uses the classical era to tell contemporary parables – social inequality in Coriolanus and celebrity infatuation in The Invisible Woman. Neither one has an expositional character explaining the subtext, nor do they have an exploitative underscore emotionally manipulating the audience. Fiennes trusts his audience will understand what’s really going on beneath it all.
For Coriolanus, Fiennes chose a post-Bourne, shaky-cam style. The Invisible Woman, conversely, is much more restrained
Not that The Invisible Woman and Coriolanus are nearly the same. For Coriolanus, Fiennes chose a post-Bourne, shaky-cam documentary style to help transfer the classical text into a modern setting. It helped to make the experience feel like guerrilla news reporting and akin to any contemporary political thriller. The Invisible Woman, conversely, is much more restrained. The camera is unintrusive – Fiennes trusts that the acting and the dialogue, written by Abi Morgan, will do much of the telling.
This style of narration reflects the theatrical background of Dickens and Ternan in the film, and to make this stylistic choice is a creative risk. It can be misconstrued as lacking directorial flair. The Invisible Woman has a theatrical ethic in telling a subjective recollection of events. It is one thing to know in theory the two distinct styles, but to bring them to the big screen together is more difficult. For them to work together impeccably is a sign that Fiennes is an interesting, intelligent and intriguing new director.
All images: BBC Films