Ralph Fiennes has made a career being typecast as men of indomitable intelligence with a healthy sense of the romantic. So it should come as no surprise to find him slipping into the role of the great Charles Dickens for his second turn as both star and director, working with screenwriter Abi Morgan (Shame and The Iron Lady) to adapt Claire Tomalin’s book about the late-life meeting between Dickens, at that time not just a celebrated writer but also a man dedicated to social causes, and Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), the daughter of Mrs. Frances Ternan (Kristin Scott Thomas), a widowed working mother raising her daughters in the theatre.
Dickens invests all of his passion in performing and directing onstage and his philanthropic efforts because his marriage is a loveless shell. The chance encounter and the growing affection seen in his subsequent exchanges with Nelly inspire him to buck the social mores. Through it all, Nelly remains a marginal figure in what should have been her story. Nelly, as we see her in fragmented scenes long after her time with the great writer and love of her life, hides behind his work and her collection of his private papers. Jones, a rising star (seen to great effect in Like Crazy), perfectly assumes the role of a “Hollywood ectoplasm” that we can look through, which is a subtle bit of work for such an attractive actress. She’s not just playing down her beauty. She’s hiding her light under a blanket; or more accurately behind a masterful Fiennes who is also, in this intimate character study, interested in something other than an empty star-turn. Although I wish that, for one of his jaunts at the helm, he would give us a grand (and more equally balanced) romantic gesture. (R) Grade: B