This month I discuss the tour de force that is To Walk Invisible, the television special from Masterpiece PBS. It’s a hard-yet-passionate look into the truth behind the vague and whispered stories about the enigmatic Brontë sisters who lived on the bleak, windy moors of Yorkshire.
The three sisters, Charlotte (Finn Atkins), Emily (Chloe Pirrie), and Anne (Charlie Murphy), who wrote, among other novels and poems, Jane Eyre (Charlotte) and Wuthering Heights (Emily) and became one of the most important literary voices in history. had to initially write under men’s names in order to have any chance at publication. They had to “walk invisible.” Obviously, there is a far deeper wound implied here, felt by all women who have had to walk invisible through history despite their groundreaking, astonishing talents and achievements. This particular gem was written and directed by the wildly talented Sally Wainright (Last Tango in Halifax) which makes it even more significant; she has advanced remarkably in a field in which women have had an uphill struggle to be recognized. It is a new level of television – artistically, ethically, and technologically. This one will haunt you for a while.
The sisters live with their poor, frail curate of a father (Jonathan Pryce) – a good man, but terribly worn down – and a weak, narcissistic addict of a brother (Adam Nagaitais), watching their father aging rapidly and their brother toppling towards rock bottom. Survival instinct has no gender, and they had to find a way to endure in a world in which women were chattel. If you were unmarried by your mid-twenties, you were generally out of luck, and without a family fortune, your prospects for the future looked dim indeed. Highly intellectual, intense girls from poor families, with no traditional good looks to speak of, undomesticated, incomprehensible to many, Emily and Charlotte weren’t big catches, and I don’t think they wanted to be caught and separated.
Charlotte (Finn Atkins) who is ambitious and refuses to be infantilized, knows that the girls’ writing has merit. They have written since they remember themselves. But she isn’t sanguine about their future as writers until she breaks into Emily’s jealously-guarded secrets. Emily was always intensely private and when Charlotte finds her poems, she is incandescent from the betrayal. Nonetheless, Charlotte opened the door to a future that we would be far poorer without.
The poems, voiced by Emily (Chloe Pirrie), are dizzying; the sweeping words, pounding like hoofbeats, amaze Charlotte, and she is almost physically overtaken. That reaction, in that small space, makes it grander still, because it cannot reign in the words with the raw power of Emily’s. She tries to convince Emily that they could try to publish them, and Emily furiously scoffs at her “grubby little publishing plans.”
The abuse Branwell heaps upon his father is unbearable. He tortures money out of him to go down to the pub, and the women watch as he slowly wears the father down, badly fraying his will to live. There is a moment of levity when Anne says “I think we should tell Papa about Jane Eyre.” But Papa dismisses Charlotte’s work, as usual, saying he would be interested in her scribblings if the letters weren’t so tiny. When she shows him the published books, he is amazed when she tells him her pen name, Currer Bell. The day after Charlotte barely escapes Emily’s wrath, Emily stops outside the paper shop and says “If we’re going to be writing novels, we’ll need more paper.” This from the woman who had already written Wuthering Heights by the time she was twenty-five.
Not only do they have to deal with the merciless world of publishing, they have the added difficulty of having to commit federal crimes just to get their mail from publishers or be able to publish at all. “When a man writes, it’s his work he’s judged for. When a woman writes, it’s herself she’s judged for,” says Emily, with a barely-controlled rage. This is necessary practicality, which, ironically would be the last thing three highly-strung females would be known for in 1842. This paradox is left up to the viewer to understand, and Ms. Wainright doesn’t feel the need to engage us with clunky character exposition, plot devices or cliches, like neighbors’ opinions or village gossip about them. Their single status is never mentioned; it is just taken for granted. One can put together the pieces of their probable journey to spinsterhood.
The acting is phenomenal, especially from the tiny and powerful Finn Atkins as Charlotte, Chloe Pirrie as Emily, and Adam Nagaitis as Branwell. Chloe Pirrie, in an interview, said that Sally Wainright trusted her actors, which is rare. She also describes the intense experience of working on this project and how much she learned from it. She knew almost nothing about Emily coming in. Now, she has a profound bond with her. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/podcasts/getting-inside-the-mind-of-emily-bronte/
Ms. Wainright is a pilgrim in many ways. I think more and more in television, showrunners are entrusting actors with their words and message, as dialogue can get sparse and minimalist with no loss of clarity. The visual connections we have to the scene and characters’ faces, with every expression etched in sharp, crystal HD and a level of lighting artistry that adds form to the content that can not only support the drama but heighten it to levels that only a perfect marriage of the two can create. I will argue this point even more so in television than in film, as the form can be restrictive and can easily fall into the formulaic.
Television is new again, a limitless, visceral stripper bursting out of a stale cake. This profoundly fleshed-out level of visual and emotional reality leaves little room for the actors to do anything but commit utterly to their decisions and interpretations. Nothing can compare with a perfect moment between actors that conveys all, but says nothing. An entire story can be told with a smear of blood on someone’s lip.
A perfect example is a short but powerful scene between Branwell and Emily, when he comes home utterly drunk. Instead of ripping him apart, she shares a perfect moment with him sitting on the wooden gate with their heads together, the desperate, strained loyalty and love obvious in Emily, and the complete self-loathing, especially poignant in Branwell when he sees himself through Emily’s eyes. They bay at the moon together along with the dogs, a ritual that feels like it has been there since childhood. Since always.
The other powerful intimate scene between reclusive guarded Emily and warm, grounded Anne uses Emily Brontë’s real words as they sit, Anne leaning against Emily. Emily shares her poem with Anne. The extreme difficulty she encounters trying to say it out loud, so much like her poems in the drawer, made me wince and cry and laugh at the raw vulnerability of bringing someone your creation, a chrysalis of your soul, and awaiting their judgment. It’s even harder because the poem is for Anne in Emily’s heart. She starts hesitatingly and then the words, the rhythms pound; like the winds on the rocks and the grasses, opening up and rising, utterly unbridled by the boundaries of language. She recites “No Coward Soul Is Mine” the line “Oh God, within my breast” soars and brings the viewer closer to the divine in nature in a way never done before on television. Mixing poetry and the visual is tricky, but when done well, few things are more powerful.
The moment that for me, embodied the message of this film: Charlotte’s validation and success give her the strength to become the person she knows she is, but could not be under Branwell’s shadow and his spattered fury about not becoming a writer. The most important moment consists of fourteen words. When Charlotte’s name is impugned due to a corrupt American publisher who is tying her and Anne’s pen names into a shady deal, she is horrified by what it will mean about her as a person, as an artist, and them as a family if she does not show herself as she is to her publishers and keeps her good name. She does the almost unthinkable, and travels with Anne seventeen hours in a carriage to see Mr. Smith, ”Currer Bell’s” publisher, to explain that Ellis (Emily), Acton (Anne), and Currer Bell were three separate people, no, three separate women, of moral character and strength of convictions. When Mr. Smith is unsurprisingly astonished and insists she can’t be Currer Bell, she asks him “And what makes you doubt that, Mr. Smith? My accent? My gender? My size?” The power in the way this line is delivered and filmed, directly and relentlessly on Charlotte’s face, is a balm to the heart of every overlooked, patronized, talented woman and also a reminder of the dagger in the gut, reminding us that our size, our outer being will always define us, no matter how much we want to pretend we have come such a long way, especially woman of size, who have always been treated like third or fourth class citizens.
This is not a Hollywood movie about three plucky sisters overcoming adversity and living happily forevermore. This is a real and gutting struggle against poverty, abuse, addiction, oppression, and illness. These are not three models in period dress, wide-eyed and melodramatic. These are mistresses of their craft. Finn Atkins is 4′ 9” and plump. Chloe Pirrie is glorious, strong, powerful, vital, but in no way traditionally pretty. Charlie Murphy is nice looking, but it’s beside the point. Branwell, played by Adam Nagaitis, is no looker – skinny, red-headed and awkward, but he had a scene which should land him twenty awards. There are awards for streaming TV now, so I don’t think it will take long. Branwell (Nagaitis) stands in an oppressive, dim stairwell where he burns like a naked flame of true pain. The gorgeous cinematography, lighting every streak in his ginger hair, HD etching out every line of his shockingly vulnerable despair. Few television films have gone this deep.
I could take this work apart for a long time, and practicality is also of an essence, as it was to our girls, notwithstanding their brilliant, luminescent minds. Lack of such was, in fact, the reason for so much of the sad fragility of their lives, their poor devout father, their raging fantasist of a brother. Writing was their way out, but also their way in, their way to touch the world, not to just pass invisible through it. To have a Heathcliff, a Mr. Rochester, even an Edmund. Their real lives, so narrow, so suffocated, did not stop their voices from becoming an eternal echo thrown into the winds of the moor. A heartbreaking arc of what was, and what could have been, resonating in all who have encountered their work. With To Walk Invisible, people may be introduced to their work after seeing their lives, and have a different perspective from those of us whose questions and love were a quiet, little-known place.