Viewer Guide: Body Heat and The Invisible Woman with Richard Peña

September 21, 2018 | Richard Peña

 Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.


This week’s classic is Body Heat, the 1981 neo film noir suspense thriller marking the directorial debut of writer-director Lawrence Kasdan.

Taking its inspiration from classics such as Double Indemnity from the heyday of film noir in the 1940s, Body Heat raised the temperatures of 1981 audiences with a level of sexual frankness that simply would not have been possible during the far more puritanical era of Hollywood’s Production Code. William Hurt stars as Ned Racine, a Florida lawyer with a largely criminal clientele who often seems busier with his afterhours assignations than he is by day in court.

One evening, Ned spies the alluring Matty Walker, played by a smoldering Kathleen Turner in her feature film debut. Married to a rich husband, brilliantly played by Richard Crenna, it isn’t long before the bored and lonely Matty enters into a torrid affair with Ned. Deeply under Matty’s erotic spell, and spurred on by her stories of her marital unhappiness, Ned becomes embroiled in an escalating plot of fraud and murder before he starts to realize that his “chance meeting” with Matty may not have been quite so accidental after all. Oh,  and by the way, all the action takes place during a sweltering Florida heat wave, so everybody sweats a lot—or, maybe the air conditioning just wasn’t as good back then.

Probably no film was more responsible for launching the continuing wave of “neo-noir” than Body Heat. The plot built around a man being seduced into murder has become so ubiquitous in our culture that it’s become a kind of modern myth, interpreted by each new generation in its own way.

Despite its many admirable qualities, Body Heat is probably most remembered today as the film that launched the movie career of Kathleen Turner, whose only other credit up to that time was a recurring role on the soap opera The Doctors. Her husky voice immediately drew comparisons to Lauren Bacall, and supposedly, upon finally meeting Ms. Bacall, Turner reportedly said, “Hi, I’m the young you.” Somehow, I don’t think that comment probably went over as well as Ms. Turner might have hoped. Rapidly becoming one of the biggest stars of the 1980s, Turner’s other successes include Prizzi’s Honor, Peggy Sue Got Married and the two Romancing the Stone adventure comedies. Turner would even memorably spoof her own screen siren persona in animated form as Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Also featured in memorable early-career roles are Ted Danson as Ned’s tap-dancing fellow lawyer, and Mickey Rourke as a former client with bomb-making expertise.

After an early career as co-screenwriter of such blockbuster hits as Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Lawrence Kasdan made a high profile directing debut with Body Heat before going on to helm one of the true decade-defining films of the 1980s, The Big Chill. He would later reunite his Body Heat stars William Hurt and Kathleen Turner in The Accidental Tourist in 1988. Kasdan’s Star Wars connection has continued up to 2018 with the prequel Solo, about the adventures of the young Han Solo, which he co-wrote with his son Jonathan.


This week’s indie is The Invisible Woman, a 2013 historical drama directed by Ralph Fiennes.

Set in 1885, Felicity Jones stars as Nelly Robinson, head mistress of a boys’ school that she runs with her husband in the coastal town of Margate in southwestern England. Nelly has gained a measure of local fame as a childhood acquaintance of the Victorian literary superstar Charles Dickens, a biographical detail she modestly downplays as much as possible. Her habit of taking brisk and solitary walks on the beach, completely lost in her thoughts, begins to concern her husband, who wonders what’s behind his wife’s need for these intense moments of solitude.

While staging a student production of the Wilkie Collins play The Frozen Deep, Nelly’s thoughts start to drift back to an 1857 production of the play in which she participated as a young actress, directed by and co-starring Dickens himself. In those days, she was known as Ellen Ternan, a member of an acting family of some repute. And far from being a child, Ellen was actually 18 when she met Dickens, and the renowned author was 45. Dickens, beautifully played by director Ralph Fiennes, was suffering through a deteriorating 22-year marriage to his wife Catherine, and the lovely Ellen quickly captured his romantic imagination. But their ensuing affair remained a closely guarded secret, and some 15 years after Dickens’ death from a stroke in 1870, Ellen is still trying to guard her status as “the invisible woman” in Dickens’ life, a duty that clearly has begun to take an increasing emotional cost. Also featured in a supporting role as Ellen’s mother is Kristin Scott Thomas, who so memorably co-starred with Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient.

Adapted from the 1990 book of the same name by Claire Tomalin, The Invisible Woman dramatizes events in Charles Dickens’ life that were suppressed until after the death of his last surviving son, Geoffrey, in 1933. Only then did scholars start reporting on the rumored affair of Dickens with the much younger Ternan. Although some accounts of their relationship claim that Ternan actually gave birth to a stillborn son, that is at best speculative, as no surviving correspondence from Dickens or from Ternan’s family has been found that might verify the claim.

Actively participating in the subterfuge, Ellen Ternan shaved 14 years off her age upon marrying her husband George Wharton Robinson in 1876, remarkably passing herself off as 23 rather than 37, thus advancing the fiction she only knew Dickens as a young girl, rather than as a young woman. Contemporary scholars have speculated that Ternan could possibly be the model for such immortal Dickens’ characters as Lucie Manette in A Tale Of Two Cities, Estella in Great Expectations, Bella Wilfer in Our Mutual Friend, and Helena Landless in The Mystery Of Edwin Drood. We’ll probably never really know; as for the very visible woman, Ellen Ternan Robinson died of cancer in 1914 at the age of 75.



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