In 2011, Ralph Fiennes channeled one of Shakespeare’s more challenging plays, the militaristic Coriolanus, into a commanding directorial debut, well-balanced (like the star himself) between head-to-head intimacy and Hollywood panache. It’s gratifying to see him continue his ambitious trajectory with this brainy period piece, about a secret love affair between Charles Dickens and a theater ingenue.
Initially, the film plays in the earthy, detailed manner of Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy (1999), another drama fixated on 19th-century stagecraft. Rehearsals come to life as Fiennes’s swanning Dickens, a celebrity in his own lifetime, flirts with Felicity Jones’s Nelly, a demure wanna-be actor. Yet the movie deepens as Nelly, destined for the gossip columns and a peripheral attachment, becomes painfully aware of her own fragility (Jones’s performance is devastating). Too bad the author himself was kind of a shit. A romance about stolen liberties in a repressed moment, this pulses with passion and purpose.
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