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Indie Snapshot: The Invisible Woman and The Past

Take a break from the multiplex with the latest art house offerings from Ralph Fiennes and Asghar Farhadi.

If you're looking for a cure to the common English period prestige picture, Ralph Fiennes's The Invisible Woman fits the bill nicely. Nominally a biopic of legendary British author Charles Dickens (played by Fiennes, who also directed the film; his second time behind the camera after 2011's Shakespeare adaptation Coriolanus), the movie is actually much more about the era in which the writer lived. Its rules (both spoken and unspoken), its mores, and the ways in which ostensibly respectable, reputable people (like Dickens) navigated around them. Written by Abi Morgan, The Invisible Woman pays close, careful attention to the details of Victorian England, while Fiennes purposefully shrugs off any gauzy, romanticized notions of that period in favor of an unstudied naturalism, both in the performances and the production design.

The "Invisible Woman" of the title is Ellen "Nelly" Ternan (Felicity Jones), the young woman who became Dickens's mistress for many years, a status that ensured her personal and financial security, but effectively cut her off from the world at large. Far from being a personal choice, it's an arrangement brokered in large part by her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), a stage actress and single mother who had raised her three daughters to follow her into the family business. Unfortunately, Nelly's talents were too modest for acting to be a viable long-term profession and when Dickens -- who first spotted her in a play he was directing -- haltingly professes an interest in pursuing in extracurricular relationship, it's Mom who establishes the ground rules of how such an arrangement would have to proceed. Nelly is subsequently lavished with attention, gifts and professions of love by the passionate writer, but the trade-off is that she steadily recedes from the public eye, a ghost whose presence can only be acknowledged by an ever-shrinking number of people.

If there's a significant flaw to The Invisible Woman (beyond an expedient, but clunky framing device featuring an older Nelly that perhaps should have been jettisoned) it's that there's never a sense of a strong emotional connection between Fiennes and Jones, one that would explain what drew Dickens to Nelly and vice versa. Then again, that fits in with the driving idea of the film, which is that this relationship was the result of a financial and social, rather than purely romantic, contract. And Jones's lovely, nuanced performance does make it clear that Nelly feels no small amount of fondness -- if not exactly smoldering passion -- for her patron. If anything, it's Fiennes who never quite seems to connect with his leading lady. But the world around these two is vividly rendered throughout and populated by sharply-etched supporting characters, including Thomas and Joanna Scanlan as Dickens's wife, Catherine, who soon figures out what her husband is up to and, in one of the movie's best scenes, pays a dramatic visit to Nelly that reveals her to be far more than a spurned spouse. Rendered practically invisible by some of the bigger awards players this holiday season, The Invisible Woman is nevertheless a plainly good film.

Like everyone else around the world, I flipped for Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi's 2011 film, A Separation, which won a slew of awards, up to and including the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Not just a superbly dramatized story about a couple in the midst of a complicated divorce, A Separation also provided a unique window into a country too often viewed on these shores through the prism of (largely negative) headlines. Farhadi's follow-up, The Past, shifts locales from Tehran to Paris and maybe it was that change to more familiar scenery, but this new film failed to capture my imagination in the same way its predecessor did.

Fortunately, the director's gifts as a storyteller are still very much in place. Once again, we're thrust into the middle of a recently terminated relationship: the soon-to-be defunct marriage between Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and Ahman (Ali Mosaffa), the latter of whom has returned to France from Iran in order to officially sign the divorce papers. In the interim, Marie (who has two children from a previous relationship), has embarked on a new relationship with Samir (Tahar Rahim), whose own wife attempted suicide after learning of her husband's infidelity and currently lies in hospital in a coma. Naturally, the two men are wary of each other at first and Marie's own emotional instability doesn't make the situation any less tension-fraught. Add to this mix Marie's rebellious teenage daughter and the ongoing mystery of who leaked word of Samir's affair to his wife and there's plenty of drama to go around.

There's plenty of drama, yes, but for me, at least, there's not much in the way of genuine intrigue. Although The Past is well-acted and deftly (if, at times, too busily) plotted, I did miss the larger sociological terrain that Farhadi navigated so effectively in A Separation. That movie wove its human drama into a larger portrait of a country caught between modernity and tradition. The Past has an overabundance of human drama, but mostly lacks a sense of place.

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