DVD reviews: 1800s escapades

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Felicity Jones stars as the title character in “The Invisible Woman” — a young woman who becomes mistress to Charles Dickens, played by Ralph Fiennes. The film, directed by Fiennes, arrives in home viewing formats on Tuesday.
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‘Invisible Woman’ exposes Dickens’ flaws; ‘Ripper Street’ plumbs depths of East End

This week, we begin and end in Victorian England:

The Invisible Woman

3 stars

Rated R, 111 minutes.

Available Tuesday on DVD and Blu-ray and in various digital download formats.

Ralph Fiennes directs and stars as Charles Dickens in this rich new biopic that illustrates how genius comes with mixed rewards. Abi Morgan supplied the script, based on Claire Tomalin’s book, and it shows Dickens struggling with fame while still turning out his numerous classic novels.

As in any film about an artist, The Invisible Woman captures the writer’s process, but misses the inspiration. Dickens’ early inspiration came from his wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), the mother of his 10 children.

In middle age, Dickens began an affair with 18-year-old Ellen Ternan (Felicity Jones), which serves as the movie’s main plot. Dickens and his best friend, Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander), meet Mrs. Frances Ternan (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her three daughters, including Ellen, while rehearsing a play.

From there, Dickens and Ellen become close, a budding relationship captured delicately by director Fiennes. At the time, Dickens was England’s first great celebrity, hounded whenever in public, so he knew how to hide. Fiennes also shows some of the author’s less admirable traits, as in one heartbreaking scene in which Dickens actually walls off his wife in their home.

Fiennes keeps his cameras tightly focused on his characters and avoids costly crowd scenes and elaborate period costumes. Unfortunately, this tightness — of camera and pocket — results in a near-colorless film, with abundant scenes in shadows and darkness.

The film carefully creates the late 19th-century costumes — which earned an Oscar nomination — and settings, but the rendering of genius will forever remain out of reach.

DVD extras: Commentary with Fiennes and Jones, a 21-minute featurette filmed at a Toronto International Film Festival press conference, and a 27-minute Q&A at the Screen Actors Guild with Fiennes and Jones.

*

Riot in Cell Block 11 (3 stars) The Criterion Collection has rescued this taut 1954 prison film directed by Don Siegel, and given it a Blu-ray debut. In one of his first films, Siegel (who went on to influence a generation of filmmakers, particularly Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood) delivers a lean rendering of Richard Collins’ screenplay.

A group of prisoners in a California prison riot against their conditions. The warden (Emile Meyer) repeats his line to outsiders that “the men are intelligent men, but some are psychopaths.”

Riot weaves together a story of officials arguing while inmates hold four guards hostage. The riot’s leader, and film’s default star, Dunn (Neville Brand, a Silver Star recipient in World War II), must juggle his own lust for vengeance with a need for succeeding in the quest.

Siegel moves his story along with several action sequences but with a surprising minimum of blood or graphic violence. The all-male cast includes a full roster of familiar 1940s and 1950s character actors: Frank Faylen (the father of Dobie Gillis’ Dwayne Hickman), Whit Bissell, Alvy Moore and the always memorable Leo Gordon as “Crazy Mike” Carnie.

Not rated, 81 minutes. Available on DVD and in a Blu-ray combo pack.

DVD extras: The remastered disc offers commentary from film scholar Matthew Bernstein. Plus: Siegel’s son, Kristoffer Tabori, reads excerpts from his father’s 1993 autobiography, as well as from Stuart Kaminsky’s 1973 book on Siegel; an audio excerpt from the 1953 NBC radio documentary series The Challenge of Our Prisons; and a 30-page booklet with an essay from film scholar Chris Fujiwara, a short testimonial from Sam Peckinpah, and a 1954 Look magazine article by the film’s producer, Walter Wanger.

*

Performance (2 1/2 stars) The Warner Archive Collection releases this cinematic oddity from 1970 on Blu-ray.

A strangely androgynous Mick Jagger, in his second screen appearance, co-stars as Turner, a semi-retired London musician who accidentally plays host to Chas, a gangster on the run, played by James Fox (seen in the latest season of Downton Abbey as Lord Aysgarth, pursuing Shirley MacLaine’s character).

Cinematographer-turned-director Nicolas Roeg and Renaissance man Donald Cammell shared directing duties for the fast-cutting, chaotic story that often goes over the edge in its 1970s-era predilection for drug scenes, group sex and gangster violence. A highly entertaining mess of a film.

Rated R, 105 minutes. Debuting on Blu-ray.

DVD extras: A 25-minute “making of” featurette, which includes interviews with several behind-the-scenes participants, and a five-minute promotional short.

*

Bella Sara: Emma’s Wings In this full-length animated film, Emma (voiced by MacKenzie Porter) and her friend Sara travel to “North of North,” a magic land filled with horses. There, the two young ladies must confront evil Ivenna in order to rescue the horses.

Not rated, 75 minutes.

DVD extras: The feature is based on the trading card series, and the disc includes a Bella Sara trading card pack.

*

And, finally, from this week’s TV offerings:

The Carol Burnett Show: Carol’s Crack Ups This six-disc set holds 17 uncut episodes chosen specifically by Carol Burnett for their abundant hilarity. They include vignettes with series cast members Lyle Waggoner, Tim Conway, Harvey Korman and plenty with Vicki Lawrence as Mama.

Dick Van Dyke also shows up, and George Carlin does his routine as a dentist. Some well-known episodes include “Alice Portnoy,” “The Charwoman,” “The Old Folks,” “The Family” and others.

Not rated, about 17 hours.

DVD extras: Five new featurettes on various topics, including Conway and Korman; bonus sketches and an interview with Conway.

*

Ripper Street: Season Two The eight episodes of this popular British series arrive from BBC Home Entertainment. The show boasts a wide array of villains for the intrepid detectives of London’s Metropolitan H division, which includes the feral East End district of Whitechapel, best known for being Jack the Ripper territory.

This well-written series could rightfully be called a “cop show,” even if it is set in 1890, and the precinct’s chief officers — Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) and Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn) — must confront not only the appearance of a new drug called heroin, but also bombers, dangerous circus show performers, a gang of abused women who kidnap men, a Chinese martial arts master and other dangers. Even Joseph Merrick (Joseph Drake), better known as the Elephant Man, figures into the intrigue.

Every episode has its own drama, but together they connect to an overall theme of capturing a corrupt chief inspector (Joseph Mawle).

Not rated, about 8 hours.

DVD extras: A 13-minute “making of” featurette with cast and crew interviews.

*

Also available Tuesday on DVD: Black Nativity, Copperhead, Date and Switch, The End of Time and Wrong Cops.

BOO ALLEN is an award-winning film critic who has contributed to the Denton Record-Chronicle for more than 20 years. He lives in Dallas.


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