Some of us can never have too much of the Brontës. But I understand if your response to another dose of costume drama on the moors is “Shoot me now.” Reader, be strong! If you were dead, you’d be deprived of the chance to be proven so pleasantly wrong by To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters, a British TV movie airing on PBS’s Masterpiece. To Walk Invisible focuses on the period between 1846, when Charlotte, Emily, and Anne pseudonymously published a collaborative work of poetry and stories, and 1848, by which time the sisters had achieved individual success with Jane Eyre (Charlotte, a/k/a Currer Bell), Wuthering Heights (Emily, a/k/a Ellis Bell), and Agnes Grey (Anne, a/k/a Acton Bell). It’s a bracing gale of a film, swirling with complicated sibling feelings of jealousy, dependency, and affection. In the plush wake of Downton Abbey and Victoria, it’s surprisingly unromanticized and defiantly un-pretty.
The film depicts the sisters, all in their twenties, as geniuses forged in close quarters. They cache their work from each other like paranoid squirrels, and there are many dramatically whispered conversations out of the earshot of their widowered father concerning their brother, Branwell, a would-be painter and poet deep in the throes of opium and alcohol addiction. And, because relationship triangles are always problematic, alliances between the sisters are ever shifting.
The family situation inside the tiny parsonage house in remote Haworth, Yorkshire, would be spirit-suffocating for more fragile flowers than these. Unmarried (and, seemingly, not unhappy about it), sporadically employed as governesses and teachers, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne scratch out their stories and do the women’s work of waiting — waiting on the men in the family, waiting for real life to offer them anything as self-affirming as what they live in their heads. “I’m never more alive than when I write,” the gentle Anne (Charlie Murphy) tells Charlotte.
The opening scene depicts the four Brontë siblings as children, CGI halos of fire hovering above their fevered brains, as they playact the lurid fantasies of kidnap and heroism they’ve written under the influence of Byron, Scott, The Arabian Nights, and gothic romances. The Brontës’ juvenile fantasy land was called “Angria.” And To Walk Invisible suggests that, for the adult Charlotte and Emily at least, anger was an animating force as powerful as imagination and ambition.
“Why is it that a woman’s world is so very different from a man’s?” the dour Charlotte wonders aloud to Emily. “Why is it that we have so few opportunities? You and I could do almost anything we set our minds to, but no….Why is it that the woman’s lot is to be perpetually infantilized?” As Charlotte, the dark-browed, diminutive Finn Atkins lets these words sizzle like spit on a griddle. Later, she painfully outs herself as Currer Bell to her London publisher; when he responds with incredulity, the camera moves in tight on her face as she exclaims, “What makes you doubt it, Mr. Smith? My accent? My gender? My size?” She becomes Jane Eyre (“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?”) before our eyes.
The volatile Emily’s anger proves even more explosive. In a stupendous performance, tall, strong-jawed Chloe Pirrie makes Emily all sharp edges and sudden squalls. She grows stammeringly mad and lunges at Charlotte upon discovering that the latter has read her secret stash of work-in-progress. In another scene, as Emily relates salacious rumors about a wealthy family’s treatment of a poor stable boy and the boy’s revenge (which we recognize as the plot of Wuthering Heights), excitement lights up her dark eyes and she makes the lip-smacking pronouncement, “All that anger — so rich!” In these scenes, and in Emily’s by turns tender and savagely resentful treatment of Branwell, Pirrie shows us how this recluse could have written the sadomasochistic blueprint for the modern gothic romance.
Messy female and familial emotions are right in writer-director Sally Wainwright’s wheelhouse; she created the divergent but equally habit-forming BBC shows Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley, both set in modern-day Yorkshire, both driven by family secrets and magnificently flawed, independent women. (They’re available on Netflix.) To Walk Invisible also recalls Jane Campion’s The Piano (set around the same time) in the daring severity of its actresses’ barely made-up faces and the linkage of a natural landscape to its rebellious heroines’ internal emotional wildness.
Except for a jarring (and a bit cheesy) coda, To Walk Invisible immerses us in the Brontës’ world, from the wide moors and lowering gray skies to the interiors shot in a claustrophobic replica of their house. Wainwright does an impeccable job of setting time and place, and of showing how small the Brontë sisters were expected to make themselves in order to fit women’s shrunken place in society. Wainwright’s script is subtler than to proclaim the Brontës as “feminists ahead of their time.” The naturalism of the production and performances give us the Brontës as feminists in their time, frustrated at being regarded as inferior by a quirk of birth, desiring agency over their own destiny.
Early on, for instance Charlotte says she’s depressed over the criticism she received from England’s poet laureate, Robert Southey, to whom she had sent her unpublished work: “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life.” Out of that experience comes the shy but determined Charlotte’s shrewd plan to send the sisters’ work off to a publisher under ambiguously gendered pen names, to see if that makes a difference.
It does, of course. Yet even when literary fame comes for Acton, Ellis, and, especially, Currer Bell, the sisters still feel compelled to stay anonymous at home so as not to upset Branwell, who was expected, by entitlement of his gender, to become the artist of the family. The addiction-fueled rages and stupors that make it impossible for Branwell to work hang like a thundercloud over the family. (Branwell, who also caused a scandal by sleeping with a married woman, is thought by scholars to have inspired, at least partially, Emily’s Heathcliff and, directly, Anne’s Arthur Huntingdon from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.) A little of Branwell goes a long way. This has nothing to do with actor Adam Nagaitis, whose Branwell has an interesting tight-lipped, squinty John Lennon nastiness about him. It’s simply that the story of his sisters proves so absorbing that we come to resent Branwell’s intrusions, as he badgers his father for booze money, shivers on his chamber pot, and hallucinates about his mistress.
Those interruptions do serve a starker purpose. How many mediocre male artists still command more attention than more talented women? Just as he must have in life, Branwell takes up more than his share of space in To Walk Invisible. There’s a brief but potent scene late in the film in which Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, despite having achieved success (however anonymous) beyond what Branwell ever could, get on their hands and knees to clean up the vomit and detritus of their brother’s latest opium binge. How heartbreaking it is to see the Brontë sisters being manspread out of their own movie.
To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters airs March 26 on PBS.