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In 1857 at age 45, Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) meets Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), then 18. Their relationship is a secret from the public; but rumours swirl and Dickens separates from his wife the following year. Ternan travels with the author for the rest of his life. After his death, she continues the Dickensian love of deception, marrying a man twelve years her junior, having declared her own age as 23, rather than 37. She continued to hide her past relationship with the most famous writer of the day ... as if the real Nelly Ternan were invisible.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
One thing this film does well is show the frigidity of the English middle class and the selective morality that was practiced in the 19th century. On the one hand, a woman even suspected of sex outside marriage was instantly discarded from society's caring bosom, the very same bosom that gave not a damn about the poverty stricken, undernourished men, women and children grovelling in its alleys. Moral grandstanding, hiding moral weakness and plenty of misdemeanours, was the currency of the day. I guess that hasn't changed and it's very much a part of the human condition.

But that's slim pickings from a film so heavily invested with talented writer, director and stars. The treatment of this story, adapted from a well regarded book by Claire Tomalin, is a tad turgid, with the sense of woe and sorrow deeply saturated to the film's bones. So if that was the intention, the filmmakers have succeeded brilliantly.

Too worthy to spark our interest, the relationship between Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) and Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones) never catches fire, neither on screen nor in our imagination. That's the bottom line, although both deliver fine performances. So does Joanna Scanlan as the tragic figure of Mrs Dickens, who carries the film's most moving and riveting scene, when she visits Nelly to deliver a jewel from Charles that was mistakenly assumed to be meant for her.

The passion that forged this relationship has to be imagined: it's not shown.

Choosing to tell the story in two time frames robs the story of its dramatic power in that we see Nelly flitting from the present to the past, reducing the impact of their decision to flaunt tradition and be secret lovers. Yet that was the whole point of the story, how that decision, at the time, had a big price tag.

Felicity Jones is ravishing and vulnerable, while Kristin Scott Thomas as her mother is all maternal concern, trying to protect her youngest daughter from the opprobrium of society. The sober ending and the downbeat score contribute to the gloom, but the film will no doubt satisfy those who are keen scholars of the life of Dickens.

Review by Louise Keller:
Secrets and shadows are the key elements in this engrossing period drama that opens a window into the private life of author, actor, raconteur and bon vivant, Charles Dickens. Based on a novel by Claire Tomalin and adapted by Abi Morgan, the film perfectly captures the morals and restraints of the mid to late 19th century as it explores the illicit love affair between Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) and Nelly (Felicity Jones). Exquisitely directed by Fiennes, who also delivers convincingly in his portrayal of Dickens, there is a poetic quality about the film with its dreamy cinematography, ethereal music and wonderful sense of time and place. Dilemmas are faced and challenges arise when love and to be loved are as complex as any Dickens novel.

It is at a performance in Manchester of Dickens' work The Frozen Deep that 18 year old Nelly meets the famous and charismatic actor, when appearing in a small role on stage along with her mother Catherine Ternan (Kristen Scott Thomas) and sisters Fanny (Amanda Hale) and Maria (Perdita Weeks). We are there for the rehearsal, the performance and the all-night celebrations afterwards. Dickens is clearly taken by the pretty, star-struck Nelly; the sobering presence of Dickens' portly wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlon) is a sharp reminder of his family ties and 10 children. The scene in which Dickens and Nelly exchange secrets late at night after having counted the money raised at a charity performance for sick children is charming, especially as Nelly's scheming mother is napping nearby - or pretending to be asleep.

We glimpse both sides of the coin as the secret love affair blossoms; Dickens' celebrity demands discretion and Nelly needs to accept the fact that the relationship has to remain in the shadows. The poetic and romantic nature of love is displayed through Fiennes' cinematic, sensitive and confident direction. His screen presence - complete with bushy facial hair and ebullient nature - leaves behind a distinct impression of Dickens the man and the way plot points from Great Expectations mirror his own life is fascinating. Unforgettable is the scene in which Dickens' wife and Nelly come face to face in confronting circumstances as are the moments when it is clear their marriage is over. Scanlon gives a heartrending performance as Catherine - pain is etched all over her angelic face.

The performances are all wonderful. Jones is perfect as Nelly, whose infatuation, affection, confusion and pain is played out like a stream of consciousness. She and Fiennes are great together and Kristen Scott Thomas is also excellent. Special mention to the wonderful production design that encompasses the action: every little detail of furniture, wallpapers and costumes contribute to the enhancement of both the sense of place and the situation. The film's look excels at every turn and the way the cinematography uses reflections and imagery to convey mood, effective.

The main story takes place in flashback, book-ended by sequences when Nell in later years tries to come to terms with her past. There opening shot of a deserted beach in wintry Margate where streaks across the sand look as though they have been painted by an artist, is breathtakingly beautiful. There's a feeling of isolation about the setting, enhanced by the image of a woman in black walking purposefully across the beach.

Published September 3, 2014

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(UK, 2013)

CAST: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Amanda Hale, Kristin Scott Thomas, Joanna Scanlan, Susanna Hislop, Tom Burke, David Collings, Perdita Weeks

PRODUCER: Christian Baute, Carolyn Marks Blackwood, Stewart Mackinnon, Gabriella Tana

DIRECTOR: Ralph Fiennes

SCRIPT: Abi Morgan (book by Claire Tomalin)


EDITOR: Nicolas Gaster

MUSIC: Ilan Eshkeri


RUNNING TIME: 111 minutes





DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Entertainment One

DVD RELEASE: September 3, 2014

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