Monday, March 27, 2017

Review: "To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters"

Last night, I watched "To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters" on Masterpiece. I wanted to love it, but ended up feeling pretty disappointed. The costumes and the sets/locations were wonderful, but the story itself was flawed and would have benefited from some reediting.

This show was supposed to be about the Bronte sisters, but the film told their story of their assent to publication success in the context of the decline of their alcoholic brother. There was too much Branwell Bronte in a film that was supposed to be about his sisters. (I wonder how the sisters would feel about their success being framed around the failure of their brother, who they protected.) One can't deny that his alcoholism and destructive behavior had a strong detrimental impact on the family, but in this kind of medium, there are things you show and things you tell, and, for me, we saw too much of Branwell. I honestly believe he could have had the same impact on the story without seeing as much of him and seeing more of his sisters. What was happening to him could have been told through voiceover in letters to the sisters' friend Ellen. Instead, we saw a scene where Branwell is told to stay away from the widow he had an affair with, a scene with him and his artist friend, a scene of his inner nightmares, and a scene on a chamber pot writing letters to procure gin. That is four scenes of just Branwell, and for me, it was four scenes too many.

I felt these scenes took up to much time in a two hour program at the expense of his sisters, namely Anne, of whom we only got to see in the context of her siblings and nothing of her inner mind and feelings. We got to know Charlotte from her constant writing or advocating for her writing (but did she always look so pinched?) Emily (reduced to being pissed off through much of the film) was strongly present through the reading of her poetry, but where was the woman who wrote the protofeminist The Tenant of Wildfell Hall? Anne's "big scenes" were about how she let Branwell down when he was fired from his position for having an affair with his boss's wife. Really?? Nothing more? I always felt like Anne was the forgotten sister, and this program just reinforced it.

I also felt that the program assumed that the viewer knew a lot of about the Brontes to start with. That opening scene that was supposed to be set in their magical imaginary kingdom (James Norton cameo!) came out of nowhere and disappeared just as quickly. (It was akin to the film Heavenly Creatures, just not executed as well.) The magical imaginary kingdom was a theme that wasn't used enough to have a significant impact, especially when revisited at Branwell's death.

Which brings me to another issue: film time jumps. We see Charlotte go off to post Jane Eyre to the publisher in the pouring rain (which made me wonder: did they send the only copy of the manuscript to the publishers? What if it got lost or damaged in the mail?) and in the very next scene, the book is very successful and about to have its second edition. If there was a subtitle explaining the time jump, I didn't see it.

The best part of the program for me was the Twitter conversation. There was one person who was posting a lot of interesting facts and tie ins as the film progressed and there were a couple of really funny comments. There were multiple tweets about sound quality and an inability to understand the accents used. (I had turned on the closed captioning when the Brontes as children were on, but found I needed them less for their adult counterparts.)

I was glad I watched the program, but it isn't one I need to see again. Sorry, Masterpiece/BBC.

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