Saturday, March 25, 2017

Review: To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters

I just watched To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters, the new drama about the lives of the Brontes that will be aired on Masterpiece Sunday night; PBS sent me a DVD for review. Really, I can only echo the excellent and accurate review in the Guardian:

It's a remarkable, fine film and I enjoyed it very much. Its realism and the psychologically devastating view of a family in the torturous throes of living with an alcoholic, are brilliantly convincing. The bleak remote setting (the film was shot in and around Haworth) has never been used before to convey so effectively the confines of the mid-Victorian narrowness of existence and the pressures that made the creativity of the three authors bloom and burst out of their desperation. Writer and director Sally Wainwright does not construct a typical pretty and romantic costume drama. She draws heavily on Charlotte Bronte's letters, which gives the film its utter verisimilitude; this may occasionally result in moments when those not well acquainted with the authors' biographies may be slightly at a loss, but it's a rich treasure for those who appreciate seeing an approach that portrays the unsparing truth with a passionate energy and attention worthy of the Brontes themselves. It's not a repeat of familiar tropes; it's a scholarly reconstruction of truth whose felt intensity is released to new heights.

The Haworth parsonage is seen here with such evocative perfection, you feel as if you are really sharing the sisters' daily lives and know the harsh almost primitive beauty of their world: the effect is almost a window into a particular past. Against this setting, the fine casting and vigorous performances shine forth. Jonathan Pryce is a pained and loving Patrick Bronte, whose daughters are visibly anguished at not being able to protect him from the horrific shocking depredations of his uncontrollable son, Branwell, devastatingly played by the fiery Adam Nagaitis. All the emotions roused in the wake of his painful self-destruction are evident on the quiet faces of his family: pity, anger, helplessness, grief. In a time when there was no help for such a problem, the Brontes struggle quietly and endure their inescapable pain. We are made to see the connection between the tragedy of Branwell's alcoholism and his and his sisters' deaths; destruction as well as genius all springing from the same source.

The casting of the three sisters, and the intense, passionate yet contained portrayals with their individual interpretations of character, is stunning. Without makeup, the plain, unadorned faces, the threadbare but ladylike clothing, the girls seem to have stepped out of the famous portrait by Branwell where his own face is painted out. Finn Atkins as Charlotte, a small and square fireplug of a woman, evinces a determination and ambition that could be the film's center were it not for the fact that every other family member's characterization is depicted with equal power. Chloe Pirrie as Emily, with her darting desperate eyes, reveals a kindness and compassion alongside her very wildness. And Anne, gentle and consoling, completes the tryptych with her understanding.

No, it's not a conventional narrative or a romance. But it's a riveting, fresh and unforgettable revisit that takes you to the heart of the Bronte story.