Tuesday Television : To Walk Invisible: The Brontes BBC drama

Wuthering Heights is my all time favourite book. There are others that are better plotted, more crisply written, ‘nicer’ but they are not seared into my consciousness like Emily Bronte’s dark reflection on obsession, death and vengeance.
I first read the book when I was 11or 12. I was dumbstruck, awestruck and every other kind of struck by its passion. It is a testament to Emily’s brilliance that Heathcliff, a taciturn, brutal, unforgiving loner is still regarded as one of literature’s greatest ‘romantic’ heroes. Even the trauma of seeing a stage adaptation of Wuthering Heights in which he was played by an actor with a ginger soft perm could not dim the character’s moody magnificence for me!

I religiously read the book every couple of years and each time am struck anew by its depth and brilliance. I get teary eyed at the same parts of the story, moved by the same parts and ultimately strangely uplifted by the macabre ending, knowing that Cathy and Heathcliff are finally together again.

To have one genius writer in a family is an achievement. To have three (and potentially a fourth) is extraordinary.

This Christmas BBC television will air a film about three years in the lives of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte as well as their brother Branwell who drank his talents and literary ambitions away, dying young as did Emily and Anne (30 and 29 respectively), although the sisters were struck down by tuberculosis. As a matter of interest, the filmmakers discovered during their research that the average life expectancy in Yorkshire during their time was 19!

I recently attended a preview screening of the film at BAFTA followed by a Q+A with the director, producer and lead actresses. Although I’ve read a fair bit about the Brontes, it was fascinating learning more tidbits of information about the family. The all female panel spoke of going on a Bronte boot camp to prepare for the film.

‘There has been so much myth making about the sisters over the years,’ said Sally Wainwright, the director. ‘Some of it started when Charlotte herself wrote introductions to the second editions of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. Her sisters were dead by then and she tried to sanitize them in some ways to make them and their work more acceptable to the society of that time. It was almost as if she had to apologise for the power of their work.’

The film shows clearly how much the sisters had to fight to get their work published and the obstacles they faced being women of that period with talent. In fact their first work was published under male names so as not to arouse suspicion and also, touchingly, to keep their success from Branwell who had always wanted to publish a novel.
Emily was described by the panel as ‘the Sphinx of English literature,’ so little is known about her.
In the film she is portrayed as strong willed but not looking for recognition. It is Charlotte, the eldest sister who is ambitious for each of their literary voices to be heard. Each of the three actresses, Charlie Murphy (Anne) who, incidentally was named after Charlotte Bronte, Chloe Pirri (Emily) and Finn Atkins (Charlotte) are excellent in their roles as is Adam Nagaitis as the unhappy Branwell. Jonathan Pryce is on fine form as their dignified father Patrick. Yorkshire is the other lead in the film. The moors are beautifully shot and Haworth village as it might have then been is a treat.

At first the sisters’ accents seem a little odd, not quite Yorkshire until you learn that Charlotte is noted by those who knew her, at one point, to have had an Irish accent. Being school teachers Charlotte and Emily might also have had to learn to ‘speak properly’ and soften any accents accounting for the unusual mix we hear on screen.
The women’s dresses too mark out their different personalities. Anne is pretty and feminine at all times, Charlotte, harsh and very proper while Emily, the homebody is the least concerned with her appearance. Charlotte was 4’10, Emily an unusual 5’7 in that time. Emily is noted in records as sometimes leaning on Charlotte!
Charlotte cared little for teaching, referring to her pupils as pin brain dolts! Emily as once bitten by a dog and calmly pulled a red hot poker from the fire to put on the bite!
Branwell was a very talented writer himself but fade to fulfil his early promise. He had a huge impact on the sisters and is undoubtedly the model for Hindley in Wuthering Heights.
Elsewhere the film deftly builds in the various inspirations for each of the sisters’ stories from the small world around them. Like Jane Austen, the Brontes took snippets of conversations and gossip they heard in their isolated parsonage and turned them into remarkable, classic pieces of literature which continue to enthrall readers from around the globe hundreds of years after their death.

To Walk Invisible will be shown on 29th December. It’s a must see.

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