To Walk Invisible review

Sally Wainwright's tribute to the Bronte sisters is a gift for fans of their work...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This review contains spoilers.

To Walk Invisible is a feature-length drama set during three crucial years of the Brontë sisters’ life from 1845, when Charlotte (Finn Atkins), Emily (Chloe Pirrie), and Anne (Charlie Murphy) returned to the parsonage after various employments to reside with their father (Jonathan Pryce) and brother Branwell (Adam Nagaitis), to 1848, the year of Branwell’s death. These three years saw the sisters seeking publication for their novels by assuming male pseudonyms to seize opportunities ordinarily denied to women in the mid-nineteenth century. Alongside their path to success runs Branwell’s self-destructive alcoholism that threatened the family.

Written and directed by the multi-award-winning Sally Wainwright, the woman behind hits such as Happy Valley and Last Tango In Halifax, the tale of the famous Brontë sisters is a compelling drama of ambition and addiction. The ambition comes from the sisters themselves, determined to make a success of their work despite a society that would seek to silence them. The addiction is Branwell’s alone; his destructive behaviour casts a long shadow over the Brontës’ works, particularly Anne’s The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall and more famously, Emily’s Wuthering Heights. He’s the destructive force of Wainwright’s retelling, acting as both inspiration and motivation as required.

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In order to provide the context for the Brontë family’s literary ambitions, Wainwright cleverly weaves in a few scenes from their childhood. The drama opens with the four siblings, seen as children with burning halos, storytelling with toy soldiers coming to life in their hands. The Brontës famously created their own fantasy world, Gondal, in which they set many tales, inspired by those aforementioned toy soldiers. Establishing this provides the narrative drive for the depiction of the three crucial years that would see Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, and Wuthering Heights published and implies that it is inevitable that the Brontë sisters would find success. Their imaginations were simply too vibrant to stagnate in Haworth.

When those works start to come to fruition, the music soars and a further sense of urgency is injected into the drama. For a Brontë fan, it’s a real thrill to witness the novels come together – to hear Anne ask whether it is acceptable to base a character on her brother, or Emily to retell the story that would inspire her. The start of Jane Eyre gets a moment all to itself as Charlotte writes down its famous opening line: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” But Wainwright does not sugarcoat the struggle that the sisters had in order to get their work published nor does she play down the risk of ignominy they could face if discovered.

Using Branwell as a contrast to his sisters allows Wainwright to demonstrate the differences between operating as a man in the mid-nineteenth century and as a woman. Early in the piece, Charlotte bemoans a woman’s lot in a similar speech to the one she would later give her most famous character, Jane Eyre. She comments on their lack of opportunity and their need to ‘walk invisible’ in order to achieve their ambitions. In contrast, Branwell is offered repeated chances to take advantage of his artistic talent, but he continues to squander them in favour of drink and an affair with an older woman of a higher social class.

The location of Haworth and the surrounding moors in their grim and rain-soaked glory are key to this, creating an atmosphere of isolation as well as maintaining the sisters’ connection to the landscape that would feature heavily in their work. There are some beautiful visual flourishes in Wainwright’s direction, including a simple yet effective pan across the moors that moves from the browns and greens of autumn into the soft white covering of winter. She often frames the sisters in isolation within this environment, highlighting not only their uniqueness in the landscape, but also their connection with it. Emily especially is seen frequently wandering along paths through the moorlands that would become such a crucial element of her only novel. 

Wainwright is aided by an extraordinarily strong cast, particularly in Atkins, Pirrie, and Murphy as the three sisters. They disappear into their roles effortlessly and have an easy rapport with each other, without losing the tension that is always underlying when siblings live in close quarters. Murphy has the less showy role as the quieter Anne, but she does a lot of the emotional heavy lifting in the background. Atkins’ stoic Charlotte is the stern centre of the piece, her steely ambition driving the sisters forward and she is scarcely seen without a furrowed brow. But it is Pirrie’s Emily who stands out the most, a tempestuous, passionate figure who vainly attempts to keep her brother with them and whose poems are the inspiration behind Charlotte’s publication plans.

For lovers of the Brontës’ work, To Walk Invisible is a gift, carefully constructed to capture the voices of the pioneering women at its heart and the spirit of their work. It is a fitting tribute to the passion for the worlds they created, as well as acknowledging the personal and social obstacles they had to overcome.

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