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Dickens' Mistress Meets Belle at Toronto 2013

09/13/2013 05:45 pm ET | Updated Nov 13, 2013
  • Erica Abeel Erica Abeel, author Wild Girls, coming October 2016

Two things about the Toronto Film Festival. Nobody cares about or notices anything except the films. Obama gets his face saved by Putin, who's making nice to the world and acting like a grownup; Nadal wins the Open; the Jersey shore takes it on the chin again -- No one at TIFF pays it any mind. It matters only that it's DAY FOUR of the festival.

The other thing? The stupefying scope and variety of the films on tap. At 8:30 A.M. you can check into David Gordon Green's Joe and spend a couple of hours with Nicholas Cage (whose face job makes him look like the Indian head on nickels c. 1938). He plays a lowlife in some Amurrican outback who can tweeze a bullet out of his own shoulder, bandage it with masking tape, then stagger toward the whorehouse.

The same evening you can attend a Gala at the Elgin (which Canadians pronounce with a hard g) and lose yourself in the exquisite period drama, The Invisible Woman. Directed by and starring polymath Ralph Fiennes, it revisits Charles Dickens' long-term hidden affair with the actress Ellen (Nelly) Ternan who at 17 was the age of one of his ten children. Film opens with a striking image of Nelly (Felicity Jones), a tiny figure in black furiously pacing the vast beach at Margate. Dickens has died, Nelly's now married -- if not happily -- and teaching drama to children. Clearly she remains haunted by her past amours with the great writer, which Fiennes summons in sumptuous flashbacks. (Filmmakers currently have a thing for starting a story with its end, then swooping back to the origins.)

No surprise that Fiennes makes a splendid Dickens, nailing the man's colossal ambition and energy -- "I walk at quite a pace," he warns -- and his longing, amidst family and a curiously modern celebrity, to forge an intimate connection. Echoing married men since the days of Beowulf, he tells Nelly his wife understands nothing about him. In a lovely courting scene, Dickens and Nelly cement their bond with shared confidences across a table, while Nelly's mum (Kristin Scott-Thomas) snoozes on a chaise nearby.

Fiennes vividly evokes the feverishly lit Victorian interiors and a world of fellow writers and thesps, including Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander) whose open liaison with his mistress almost sends Nelly packing. "So this is how it will be," Nelly finally tells Dickens in a poignant scene. Equally "invisible," of course, is poor Mrs. Dickens (Joanna Scanlan, perfection), who in a quietly devastating manner warns Nelly about the writer's outsize self-absorption. Fiennes is a painterly director who can make a day at the races resemble an early Degas. He also allows the narrative to go silent at moments -- as a linking device to "mark the passage of time," he told me over a vodka martini at Toronto's iteration of Momofuku. Keeping faith with the Victorians, Fiennes conveys love through the eyes. "No need to show thrashing limbs," he said during a Q & A following the Gala.

Filmmakers at TIFFf 2013 show an outsize reliance on true stories. Steve McQueen's Twelve Years a Slave is based on the journal of one Simon Northup. Similarly, Belle by Amma Asante -- in some sense a counterpoise to the McQueen -- relates the real-life journey of Dido Elizabeth Belle, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, a revelation. An 18th-century woman of mixed race, Dido is raised in England in opulent style by a high-ranking judge (Tom Wilkinson) and his family, but because of her color is treated like a second class citizen. Then Dido inherits a fortune from her father, a Captain in the Royal Navy, upping her marriageability -- though maybe not to a "respectable" suitor. Meanwhile the judge's beautiful blonde niece (Sarah Gadon) can't snag a husband for lack of a dowry.

While the set-up is very Jane Austen, the film's larger issue has to do with the push to end slavery, the life blood of the British economy. Into Dido's world comes Davinier (Sam Reid, perfectly cast), a hot vicar's son and fledgling lawyer bent on mounting a criminal case against a slave-trading ship that drowned its slaves in order to collect insurance money.

Essentially, Belle is the coming-of-consciousness story of both Dido as she helps Davinier expose the horrific massacre; and of England, as the judge betrays his own class to condemn the practice of slavery that has enriched the country. Yes, you can see almost immediately where the film is heading -- cue the violins as love and enlightenment meet in a giant clinch. "Kind of schmaltzy," said a fellow critic. Yet the actors -- particularly the sublime Tom Wilkinson and the elegant Mbatha-Raw -- carry it off with panache, the story itself is exotic and new -- and hell, it makes you feel happier about the world.