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VFF 2013—Day 4: 'The Invisible Woman' and 'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom'
Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones in 'The Invisible Woman'

Editor's Note: Most moviegoers don't get to attend many film festivals, but festivals are important nonetheless. What happens at a festival can influence how, when, and even whether a film will get out to audiences.

Two of our regular critics were at the Virginia Film Festival this weekend and sent daily updates, capsule reviews, and reflections on what they saw. Here's Ken Morefield's report on day one;Nick Olson's report on day two; andKen Morefield's report on day three.

The Invisible Woman (directed by Ralph Fiennes)
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (directed by Justin Chadwick)

"We have fallen in love with men of distinction," Caroline Graves (Michelle Fairley) tells Nell Ternan (Felicity Jones) in The Invisible Woman. For the former, that would be Wilkie Collins; for the latter, Charles Dickens. Nell insists that she doesn't love the Victorian writer. If so, she's the only one appearing in or making the movie of whom that is apparently true.

One of the first pieces of cultural criticism I ever attempted, way back when I was in high school, was an examination of how and why so many films and television series were formally structured to justify adultery. (I was angry at Herman Wouk's The Winds of War for making me root as a reader for naval officer Pug Henry to ditch his wife.) The two most common practices, it seemed to me, were to 1) make the wife ugly or 2) make the wife a shrew.

That's a fairly unsophisticated critique, even for a high school student, but it struck me in watching The Invisible Woman how little has changed since then. The camera lingers over Nell's bare neck, like a lover coming from behind to share an intimate moment. By contrast, when Dickens (Fiennes) walks in on his wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan) while she is changing clothes, he and the camera quickly look away while she covers herself. She is so . . . un-svelte.

Lest we are tempted to think the affair is about nothing more than physical lust, we begin and end with Nell reciting words from a Dickens play, words about the primacy of love. The author himself claims that he cannot share a life with his wife because she "understands" nothing.

Honestly, though, Scanlan is the best thing in this movie, stealing every scene she is in, including an impossible scenario in which her husband makes her deliver his mistress' birthday present, claiming he assumed that when she was confronted with the other woman she would understand why he preferred her. In a later scene, Catherine listens as her son reads a letter her husband has sent to the papers defending the honor of the young lady while announcing in a cruel aside that they are separated. If only the whole movie had been about Catherine and from her point of view, it might have been a story worth telling.

The film wants to insist that Dickens's biography, especially his love, informed his work. As if to underscore that, we get the author reading the end of Great Expectations to Nell. As if that weren't enough, Nell's confessional harkens back to the same scene to underscore it.

It's not so much Dickens being a cad that sinks the movie. There are lots of engaging, insightful films about flawed human beings. But the film can't decide if he is driven by a need to be loved by the public or an artist's narcissism to always put his work first. We do get the performative aspects of an attention-seeking personality, but I kept looking in vain for the depressive side of the manic people-pleaser.

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