3 Things We Love About PBS’ Latest Masterpiece on the Brontë Sisters

Come for the feminist powwow, stay for the honest family drama.
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Come for the feminist powwow, stay for the honest family drama.

The name “Currer Bell” might be collecting dust on very expensive antique books, but in 1847, it was hot off the press. Back then it was a mysterious name attached to a new and booming novel, Jane Eyre.

Most of us who have taken a high school English course know that Charlotte Brontë was behind this famous pseudonym, which she boldly pushed aside merely three years later, shortly after the tragic early deaths of her equally brilliant sisters, Emily and Anne (published as Ellis and Acton Bell, respectively). And most of us glaze over the reason for these aliases, chalking it up to the rampant sexism of the Victorian era, obviously.

But what if it weren’t that simple?

I was able to get my hands on Sally Wainwright’s two-hour drama To Walk Invisible ahead of its U.S. premiere. And I found that while the Brontë sisters have enchanted the imaginations of several screenwriters and producers across the decades, director Wainwright’s portrayal is different. In this film, the backdrop in which these sisters wrote in—with their violent, alcoholic, depressed brother consuming the household—takes the foreground, placing us in their shoes and grounding their sublime work in reality.

It’s raw; it’s heartbreaking; it’s fresh; it’s poignant; it’s inspiring. In short, dear reader, even if you’ve never picked up Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, this BBC movie is worth your time. It premieres here in the States at 9 p.m. ET on March 26.

01. The cinematography is exhilarating.

“Atmospheric” is a word often used to describe the Brontë sisters’ work. While their daily life overlooked Haworth, a little town full of windmills and bustling shops booming to the beat of the industrial revolution, they were not far from the northern countryside—wild, windy, and temperamental. The ethereal influence for Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre (get it, like Jane “Air”) is palpable in the film. “It was the strong winds up at Top Withins that really brought home to me just how inspirational these moors were for Emily Brontë,” English writer Maureen Coleman describes her visit to Haworth. “It nearly knocked us off our feet as we battled against it.”

In this respect alone, To Walk Invisible is a visual treat. It captures the color, the grandeur, and nature’s changeability in this part of the world. While I’m not a big poetry reader and, in fact, was completely oblivious that Emily Brontë (Chloe Pirrie) even published poetry, the scene where lyrical lines of her poem Prisoner are read in her melodious, northern English accent over the intensifying crescendo of violins as the camera spans the vast surroundings actually gave me the chills.

02. It puts the Brontës’ secrecy into perspective that transcends sexism.

“Why have you kept it such a secret?” asks their father, Patrick Brontë (Jonathan Pryce), of his daughters—after Charlotte (Finn Atkins) finally reveals that she is, in fact, the newly famous Currer Bell, and her sisters are Ellis and Acton.

They start off by listing the usual suspect of this era: blatant sexism. They wanted to protect themselves from criticism; after all, their works, by Victorian standards, were “coarse” and “vulgar,” not very ladylike. As Emily previously states: “When a man writes something, what he has written is judged. When a woman writes something, it’s her that’s judged.” (A statement that still holds more truth than most of us may like to believe).

But then things got interesting. Their real reason hits closer to home.

“More importantly . . . we didn’t want [our brother], Branwell, to know,” confesses Anne (Charlie Murphy). “That’s first and foremost why we’ve kept it a secret.”

“It’s because it’s what he’s always wanted to do,” Emily adds. “And now it looks less and less likely he ever will. It’s like rubbing salt into a wound.”

This strongly resonated with me. In fact, thinking it still makes me cringe, as this brings me back to times in my life where I felt too intimidated to speak my own mind, even in front of those who are supposed to be close to me. Too worried about how I would make other people feel, I stayed on the sidelines, wishing that could be content in compliancy.

It also made me question the line between self-preservation and timidness. Sure, in part, their discretion and secrecy was out of pity, but as Branwell—who was considered a genius by his family at one point—begins to drink himself into oblivion, and his reactions become erratic and fierce, his sisters live a life of tiptoeing around his every move, even hiding the gun from him. It makes me wonder how many brilliant minds are held captive by circumstance.

03. It’s warm and human—and the acting is perfect.

By no means is this film a comedy, but it does have its understated, dry British humor moments, and the acting is phenomenal. Exhibit A: My favorite moment was this particular little zinger.

Sorry, uh, you are Currer Bell?” the chuckling young editor, Smith, asks of of a blustering Charlotte Brontë, in complete disbelief.

“What makes you doubt it, Mr. Smith?” she suddenly snaps, her awkwardness dissipating. “My accent? My gender? My size?

As his facial expression changes to reflect his own realization of his biases, you can’t help but laugh. “Oh, good heavens. Oh, good Lord,” he stammers, as if the ghost of Jane Eyre just scolded him. “Forgive me.”

It’s priceless.

More important than this anecdotal scene, the energy between the sisters is on-point and natural, and their unique personalities shine and weave through the storyline flawlessly. As they hopefully plot out their course for publishing, and go about their daily lives with their brother’s addictions and violence becoming just another thing they live with, I’m struck by how real it all seems. And not just how the actors work together, but of the real Brontë sisters’ descriptions. In particular, Chloe Pirrie plays an incredible eccentric and moody Emily, while Finn Atkins plays her perfect business-minded, earnest counterpart as Charlotte.

But the biggest shout-out goes to Adam Nagaitis, who plays the tormented brother Branwell so well that you’re just as torn as the sisters. Viewers experience half-pity, half-anguish and are entirely blown away by his demise. I was with the sisters: I found myself loving him but also resenting him and the chaos he wrought on upon his family.

So, whatever your Sunday night plans: Consider this. Or watch it later online. Either way, it’s two hours you won’t regret.

Photo Credit: PBS