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Toronto, Day 5

Posted by Ty Burr  September 10, 2013 12:52 AM

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I'm at a party on the private third floor of a gleaming Asian fusion restaurant in downtown Toronto. Actress Felicity Jones is surrounded by well-wishers, drop-dead stunning in a sleeveless black dress. The president of a major independent film distribution company is giving me merry hell over his issues with film critics in general and me in particular. Over by the window, Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson are engaged in quiet conversation. They look like two lions in suits.

This must be the Toronto film festival.

The party is to celebrate the world premiere of "The Invisible Woman," Fiennes' second directorial effort (after 2011's "Coriolanus") and the story of 19th-century author Charles Dicken's secret love affair with the much younger Nelly Ternan. Jones plays Ternan, incandescently. Fiennes plays Dickens with a shaved-back hairline and a devilish little beard. The movie's a hushed and hesitant thing, extremely beautiful in its camerawork, lighting, and editing, and extremely British in its repression. It takes most of the movie for Dickens and Ternan to get close to kissing, and even then it's a sort of face-grazing intimacy that feels more illicitly thrilling than porn.

But, yes, Ternan had Dickens' child (it didn't survive), and, yes, according to the movie's discreetly tragic take on the matter, she was a back-street girl ultimately wronged by the man who loved her. "The Invisible Woman" presents Dickens as both a kind and gentle man and the Victorian equivalent of a rock star; he loved Nelly deeply but he may have loved his fame the more. (There's an odd parallel here with the story of J. D. Salinger as told in the very bad current documentary "Salinger" and elsewhere, in that both he and Dickens -- and many artists and probably many men -- seemed to have had a penchant for marooning very young women up on pedestals, where they teetered between idealization and sex.)

It's a delicate, subtle, and at times oddly-shaped movie, and not an easy sell for Sony Classics. More than anything else, "The Invisible Woman" feels as inward as its director-star himself, moving to Fiennes' private rhythms rather than the imperatives of a commercial marketplace. This is hardly a bad thing but, rather, a way to say that the movie's un-bodied passion may discombobulate (or worse, bore) audiences hoping for more of a bodice-buster. This was clear in the post-screening Q&A session at the Elgin Theatre, when one distressed audience member asked Fiennes why the lovers hardly ever got it on (and then had the tactlessness to suggest that it was because of the "age difference").

Like a lot of great actors, Fiennes barely seems there when not playing a role; on stage at the Elgin and at the party afterwards, he came across as shy, polite, almost embarrassed to be proud of his work. He and I chatted briefly and I commented on the number of scenes in which Jones's Nelly is lit so that she's the luminous focal point of a shot. He disagreed, pointing out that she's in shadow for much of the film -- she's the Invisible Woman, after all -- but his disagreement felt like an apology. Can self-effacement work as a directorial tactic? All I know is that Fiennes has made two very interesting films now, and he has made them on his own terms.

Speaking of apologies. "The Armstrong Lie," the Alex Gibney documentary premiering in Toronto, gives Lance Armstrong a chance to unburden his soul once and for all, and the disgraced athlete does just that -- while remaining curiously delusional about the damage he did to others. The project has a somewhat bizarre provenance: Gibney filmed Armstrong in 2009 for the cyclist's first Tour de France comeback but abandoned the film when revelations of the cyclist's years of blood doping became too loud to ignore. Shortly after Armstrong's public mea culpa for Oprah Winfrey, the documentarian got him on camera again to fess up in further detail.

On one level, the film's a way for Gibney to re-purpose the footage he shot in 2009, when, it now seems clear, Armstrong was riding to prove to himself he could finally win the Tour clean. (We hear from those who disagree.) But "The Armstrong Lie" is also an indictment of a sport so overwhelmed by banned substances that it had ceased to be a sport: When everybody's cheating, the winner is simply the best cheater, and that was Lance Armstrong.

The movie implicitly argues that the cyclist's worst crime wasn't the doping but the lying -- and the career-wrecking smears and lawsuits that Armstrong unleashed on anyone who dared to speak the truth. On that score, he still seems oblivious. Gibney clearly likes Armstrong and retains a certain amount of sympathy, but ultimately his film understands that it's sympathy for the devil.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

Janice Page is movies editor for The Boston Globe.

Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.

Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.

Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at Boston.com.

Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for Boston.com.

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