Will ‘Invisible Woman’ get Ralph Fiennes back in Oscar race after 17 years?

Ralph Fiennes hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar for 17 years, since way back in 1996 when he was up for Best Actor in “The English Patient.” Doesn’t it seem like he should have been nominated at least once or twice since then? What’s holding him back?

It’s certainly not for a lack of Oscar-friendly vehicles. In the years since his “English Patient” bid, he has starred opposite Best Actress nominee Julianne Moore in “The End of the Affair,” Best Supporting Actress winner Rachel Weisz in “The Constant Gardener,” and Best Actress winner Kate Winslet in “The Reader.”

He’s also had  prominent roles in “In Bruges,” an Oscar-nominee for its screenplay, as well as “The Duchess,” “Skyfall,” and the “Harry Potter” films, all contenders or winners in craft categories. And though he had a very small role in “The Hurt Locker,” that was nevertheless the third Best Picture winner on his resume, following “Schindler’s List” and “English Patient.”

Now Fiennes directs himself and stars as Charles Dickens in “The Invisible Woman,” which takes place late in the author’s life, when he began an extramarital affair with a younger woman, Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones). Though the film has a lot of the hallmarks of an Oscar favorite – it’s the story of a well-known historical figure with literary cachet, impressive period details, and, of course, all those British accents – Fiennes has yet to make a dent in our Best Actor odds. He currently ranks 21st in the crowded category.

This kind of literary, European costume drama was more popular with the Academy back in the Merchant Ivory days (“A Room with a View,” “Howards End,” “The Remains of the Day”). Films like “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Sense and Sensibility” also earned Best Picture bids in the ’80s and ’90s, and “Shakespeare in Love” famously upset “Saving Private Ryan” to win in 1998.

In recent years, though, many such films have been relegated to craft categories like Production Design and Costume Design, including “Anna Karenina,” “Jane Eyre,” “The Duchess,” “The Young Victoria,” “Bright Star,” and “Marie Antoinette.” “Atonement” managed a Best Picture nomination in 2007, and “The King’s Speech” won in 2010, but both films had the added benefit of war themes, set respectively in World War I and World War II.

Production Design and Costume Design are probably the strongest possibilities for “Invisible Woman,” which has plenty of rich detail. It could be a factor for Score and Cinematography bids as well. “Anna Karenina” received nominations in all four of those races last year, winning for its costumes.

Apart from those, Felicity Jones may have an outside chance at a Best Actress nomination playing the emotionally wrought heroine, but that race is already full of strong possibilities, so she may have to hope contenders like Emma Thompson and Amy Adams disappoint in the as-yet-unseen “Saving Mr. Banks” and “American Hustle,” respectively.

Joanna Scanlan has a standout supporting role as Dickens’s unappreciated wife. There is still room to maneuver in the Best Supporting Actress race at this point, though that too may be an uphill climb for an actress who isn’t familiar to many viewers on this side of the pond; Scanlan will probably need at least a critics’ group or two to get any traction in the race.

As for Fiennes, he may be held back at the Oscars by his character’s stiff upper lip; he’s romantic and emotional, but there are no big, dramatic outpourings for a character who, by the nature of his circumstances, must keep his feelings secret. However, he could get bonus points from his peers if they’re impressed by his direction.

This is Fiennes’s second effort behind the camera; he last tried his hand with Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus.” We know how much the Oscars like actors who direct, but “Coriolanus” couldn’t make an impact during awards season in 2011. Will he succeed with Dickens where he failed with Shakespeare? If not, perhaps he could keep mining British literature until he finally hits pay dirt.

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