Over the weekend, our own Christopher Campbell went to bat in a big way for The Wolf of Wall Street co-star Margot Robbie, campaigning to well, start a campaign to get some awards season love for the breakout star in a film laden with talent. Campbell’s claims that Robbie is deserving of recognition for her work in the film are spot-on, as the emerging actress really makes her role as Jordan Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) second wife her own, turning a bleached-out bimbo into a flinty, funny lady who is one of the few people to get out from underneath Belfort’s abusive thumb by her own agency.
Robbie, however, isn’t the only supporting star to endure domestic abuse on the big screen this year in a highly memorable way – elsewhere, Welsh multi-hyphenate Joanna Scanlan worked similar magic in another period piece about a wildly out of control man who ruins lives left and right. In Ralph Fiennes’ The Invisible Woman, the personal affairs of Charles Dickens (Fiennes) might not have the same financial implications as Jordan Belfort in WOWS, but the emotion runs deep – at least as it applies to his wife, Catherine Dickens (Scanlan).
Fiennes’ fact-based tale centers on the late-in-life affair between Dickens and a young actress (Felicity Jones), an affair that marked Jones’ Nelly Ternan for the rest of her days (the film starts long after their love story has ended, flipping between that “present” and the “past” of their blossoming romance, serving to show the slow descent into depression that very nearly killed Nelly). While the story itself is compelling stuff, Fiennes’ final product is bloodless and just sort of flat. In short – the film is about a consuming love affair that destroys entire lives, but the chemistry level between stars Fiennes and Jones is low-grade at best, entirely absent at worst.
And yet, despite failing material, Scanlan absolutely captivates. When I reviewed the film out of NYFF earlier this year, I picked Scanlan’s performance as a major highlight – “Joanna Scanlan’s performance is a surprising slow burn that pays off big time” – that benefits the entire production. What could be a throwaway part in a story about other people’s romances is, instead, the emotional center of the whole film, all thanks to Scanlan’s slowly building turn and the steady revelations about her actual character.
But Scanlan isn’t getting the attention she should for the part – and that might be due to the fact that while the “invisible” in the film’s title is meant to refer to Nelly, it really seems to be nodding to Catherine, who Fiennes frequently sticks in the literal background.
Even in the film’s trailer, Scanlan is a bit of a non-entity, only cropping up when it’s time to remind people that Dickens is a married man. She’s appropriately annoyed, a bit put out, and dismissive. When we first meet Mrs. Dickens within the context of the film, she is sort of yawning her way through a reading of her husband’s work – the immediate connotation is that she doesn’t get it, that she’s not appreciative of her husband’s work, that he deserves someone more invested in creativity. Jones’ Nelly, on the other hand, understands the man, and her adoration of his work is what brings initially brings them together. Catherine doesn’t get her husband, goes the narrative, until we realize that she does, she is just sick to death of his ego and pompous attitude.
By all means, Catherine Dickens could be an afterthought, a nothing role included for the sake of drama and accuracy. Scanlan, however, evolves spectacularly beyond this designation, eventually becoming the most sympathetic and compelling person in the entire film. This trailer does include a tiny bit of Scanlan’s best scene in the film, around the 1:30 mark, when Mrs. Dickens is confronted with a newspaper that shares with her the sort of news Charles should have shared – that they are getting a divorce. Oops!
A large subplot of the story centers on Dickens’ incredibly poor treatment towards his wife – one that seems relatively benign until it turns monstrous. In my review of the film, I wrote:
“Dickens’ cruelty and callousness slowly reveals itself as the film goes on (and as his feelings for Nelly ostensibly deepen), with the author eventually pulling out such terrible tricks as making his wife Catherine (the wonderful Joanna Scanlan, who turns in a beautifully evolving performance, the very best in the film) deliver a gift to Nelly so she will finally “understand,” building a literal wall between he and Catherine in their family home, and finally announcing their separation in the newspaper (making it literally news to Catherine). Basically, Dickens comes across as a first class asshole.”
While Fiennes’ film is preoccupied with the romantic trials of Nelly and Charles, what’s really compelling about the film is the revelation about Dickens’ character and how that ties into the really uncomfortable power dynamics at play between him and Nelly. Catherine Dickens sees through this, and Scanlan’s work steadily growing her character into someone who is richly detailed and inherently captivating beautifully encapsulates those elements of the film.
The invisible woman in The Invisible Woman may get an entire film about her for audiences to consume, but the actually hidden woman within the film is the one worth watching – and Scanlan’s performance as the misunderstood Catherine Dickens is one of the year’s finest. Now let’s remind the Academy of that.