Screenwriter Sally Wainwright is best known for hard-hitting drama, Happy Valley and ratings hit, Last Tango in Halifax. Kicking off her career with a stint on Emmerdale, she’s found her niche writing, and latterly directing, TV drama set in the North of England. Her work is characterised by down-to-earth storytelling with a big dash of black humour. Now she’s turned her attention to one of Yorkshire’s most famous families: The Brontës.
To Walk Invisible, a one-off biopic, premieres on BBC1 at 9pm on 29th December. But this is no cozy Christmas treat, no Last Tango in petticoats.
Wainwright’s first foray into historical drama begins in 1845, when all four surviving Brontë siblings had returned to live at the Parsonage in Haworth. During the following few years, the three sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, first attempted to publish their writing. Brontë fans will know that their debut appearance in print, a self-funded compilation of poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, hit the shelves in 1846 and sold the grand total of two copies.
Taking non-gender specific pseudonyms was a considered and perceptive move. Their desire to remain anonymous – or ‘to walk invisible’ – was a result of concern about how society would perceive both their work and its creators. As Emily says, ‘When a man writes something, it’s what he’s written that’s judged. When a woman writes something, it’s her that’s judged.’ We’re presented with a picture of sexism and inequality in the Victorian literary establishment that reflects an imbalance some might argue is still ingrained today.
Set against the three sisters’ ascendency to literary stardom is the story of Branwell Brontë’s descent into alcoholism. The Brontës were private people and, despite years of public fascination and the attention of biographers, the tragic tale of Patrick Brontë’s only son is often a footnote to the legacy of his sisters. Wainwright casts a bright beam on Branwell’s story, and rightly so – the impact that his illness had is crucial to our understanding of the Brontës during the years that gave us Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Wainwright says she had to make hard choices about what to focus on and who her audience would be, deciding in the end that those most likely to watch would be people who already have an interest. She wastes no time with exposition, plunging straight into the claustrophobic, isolated world of the Parsonage with scant backstory or explanation, trusting the viewer to fill in the gaps. Those with little or no knowledge might struggle.
The writer’s obvious passion for the subject shines through and it’s clear she’s done her research. Wainwright describes Juliet Barker’s 1994 biography as her research Bible and she worked with literary adviser, Siv Jansson, to ensure ‘very few liberties with the story’. The film does stick to the facts. Extracts from real letters and diaries are used deftly, giving a flavour of the intimate lives and personalities of the sisters.
Charlotte (Finn Atkins) is played with fierce intensity, burning with the thwarted ambition and determination that eventually took her to the top of the literary tree. Chloe Pirrie portrays Emily as a forceful, singular woman with a penchant for the wild, gothic flights that inspired Wuthering Heights. And Anne (Charlie Murphy) is the family peacekeeper; moral, deeply religious, and for once given her fair share of attention. All three chafe at the limitations of their circumstances and lack of choices. They are brought together by their frustration with a cold, distant father who takes very little interest in them (Jonathan Pryce putting in a solid performance as Patrick Brontë here) and a brother who squanders the opportunities they so crave. This feminist agenda feels modern without anachronism; we know the Brontës really held these views, pouring their resentments into characters like Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey.
The action centres around Branwell (Adam Nagaitis) and if I have a niggle, it’s here. It’s widely accepted that Branwell was an alcoholic and probably an ‘opium-eater’ too. Opium in the form of Laudanum was widely available at this time and there is documentary evidence that he tried it, but this isn’t mentioned. By the time we meet him he’s already embittered by professional failures, disappointed in love and displaying the selfish, self-destructive behavior of the addict. Perhaps for that reason, I found him hard to sympathise with.
The reasons for Branwell’s addictions and the triggers for his descent into despair are explained, backed up by harrowing scenes showing the painful consequences for the rest of the family, but we don’t see much of the talented young man with the charming, easy manner that was reported by those who knew him. In his relationship with Emily we do get a sense of the bond between the siblings. It’s through her eyes that the impact of Branwell’s depravity is most devastating. One particularly effective shot echoes the famous Henry Wallis painting, The Death of Chatterton, powerfully foreshadowing Branwell’s tragic fate.
Anyone who knows Haworth will delight to see the High Street meticulously recreated as it was in the 1840s, through a mixture of ambitious set design and subtle CGI. These days the Parsonage itself (now the Parsonage Museum) is very different from the home the sisters knew. Executive Producer, Faith Penhale, says that the team was determined to get the research right. The interior sets, shot in a Manchester studio, are full of rich detail, while the entire exterior of the Parsonage was constructed on nearby Penistone Hill. I visited the latter in the summer of 2016 – it was impressive and looks fantastic on screen.
This setting – the isolated house and wide moorland landscape – becomes a character in its own right. A palate of greys and sepias, the rain and fog, the lack of incidental music in favour of ever-present moorland wind and sparse birdsong all lend a bleak, Wuthering Heightsian atmosphere that is pretty much perfect.
And then, of course, there is the literary work itself.
Stand out scenes include a moving recitation of one of Emily’s poems as we follow her across the moors that so inspired her, and the spine-tingling moment that Charlotte begins the first chapter of Jane Eyre. This is where the drama works best – as an insight into the inner world of the Brontës, and the family dynamics from which such important work was created.
To Walk Invisible doesn’t feel like traditional costume drama. The dialogue is modern and immediate. Wainwright says she took pains to make sure the language was historically authentic, including the use of profanities and the dour Yorkshire humour we’ve come to expect in her writing.
And there are some lovely touches for Brontë geeks. Otherworldly flashback scenes referencing the siblings’ extraordinarily creative, imaginative childhood – including a brief cameo by James Norton as the Duke of Wellington – and Charlotte’s awkward interactions with Arthur Bell Nicholls should keep the fans happy.
In recent years the BBC have moved away from clichéd corseted pieces in favour of series like Peaky Blinders and Wolf Hall, injecting vital energy and modern relevance into historical drama. Wainwright has achieved just that with To Walk Invisible. She says that she wanted to convey just how extraordinary it is that three obscure women from Yorkshire created such groundbreaking literature and how alive these women still are today. A clever device at the end of the film brings that message home.
It’s true, I think, that many people feel an intimacy with the Brontë sisters through their work, perhaps even a sense of ownership. They certainly continue to fascinate us. Sally Wainwright brings her unique sensibility, shining fresh light on a well-known story. To Walk Invisible is bold, brave and real – a must for Brontë fans. I wouldn’t expect anything less from one of our best screenwriters.
To Walk Invisible airs on BBC1 at 9pm on 29th December 2016 and will be available on BBC iPlayer.
- The Brontë sisters ©BBC
- Sally Wainwright on set with Jonathan Pryce ©BBC
- Parsonage exterior set