(out of 5)
Ralph Fiennes stars and directs in this superb adaptation of the novel by Claire Tomalin, about the relationship between Charles Dickens and Nell Ternan that may have inspired the greatest novel ever written, Great Expectations. Dickens meets the young lady during production of The Frozen Deep, a play he co-wrote with Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander) and which starred Nell (played beautifully by Felicity Jones), her sister and her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). The greatest scribe of the Victorian era is already married for years to a resentfully plain woman (Joanna Scanlan) who is also the mother of his many children, and sees the opportunity to tap into his constant desire for new inspiration (and, possibly, a chance to feel young again) in this girl who is always optimistic but never naïve. Told from the point of view of Ternan’s character in later life, happily married and her affair with Dickens unknown to her peers, the film hits all of its points, dramatic, romantic and comedic, with exact precision and is never dull. What makes its slim narrative stand out is the richness with which Fiennes treats all of his characters, Dickens a terrific hero who is not excused from also possibly being far too indulgent of his own caprices, while the marvelous performance by Scanlan as Mrs. Dickens prevents her from being merely the shrew who is thwarting a perfectly good romance. Fiennes breaks out of the brooding mould he is most famous for (likely because of The English Patient, ironically co-starring the woman who plays his lover’s mother here) to perfectly embody the mercurial, irresistible charms of the man whose fictions still capture the imagination with the same verve they had when they were brand new (it also captures the charmingly weak nature of The Frozen Deep, a classic example of the wan nature of Victorian theatre if ever there was one). Scott Thomas highlights every scene she appears in with her customary intelligent ease, as does a brief but poignant performance by the lovely Michelle Fairley as the woman whose social convention-challenging relationship with Collins acts as a cautionary tale for our amiable heroine.
Directed by Ralph Fiennes
Cinematography by Rob Hardy
Music by Ilan Eshkeri
Production Design by Maria Djurkovic
Costume Design by Michael O’Connor
Film Editing by Nicolas Gaster