Tuesday 10 January 2017

To Walk Invisible

‘To Walk Invisible’, a feature-length BBC drama directed by Sally Wainwright and out now, telling the story of the three Bronte sisters and the struggles they had to overcome in order to become published for their poetry and novels (including ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Agnes Grey’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’, which have been described as some of the greatest examples of literature from the 19th century).

Set between 1845 and 1848 but with flashbacks to their childhood, the three sisters are now in their early twenties. With a father (Jonathan Pryce) who is losing his sight, a deceased mother, and a brother, Bramwell (Adam Nagaitis), who is rapidly spiralling into alcoholism and depression, the trio are highly conscious of the fact that they need to earn a living. Since they were young they’d all been interested in creative writing (Bramwell included) but, due to their gender, had never felt it was possible to pursue. Charlotte (Finn Atkins) and Anne (Charlie Murphy) come up with a plan and manage to eventually convince Emily (Chloe Pirrie) to see it out, in the hope that one day all three of them would become published and make enough money to solve their family’s financial issues. 

The main target audience here seems to be those that are already fans of the Bronte sisters, although it can appeal to those that aren’t as well. Unusually gritty and raw for a BBC period drama we’re thrown straight away into the battles that the sisters are facing without so much introduction – Wainwright has chosen to focus on Bramwell’s self-destruction and the sisters’ ambitions from the very beginning, and not so much on the literary talent or story behind it all. It’s powerful and it works, but could mean you lack some understanding of certain scenes if you’re not clued up on their lives already.

Perhaps because of this I felt it hard to relate to the sisters at first – there’s a terrible lot going on during the first half but there wasn’t enough relationship built with the characters to give it true meaning. Pirrie portrays a headstrong, stubborn Emily and Atkins a reserved, almost abrasive at points Charlotte, and so you can imagine how hostile the household could feel at points. Murphy brought us a sweeter and more emotionally open Anne, who was much needed to help balance it all out. By the end of the two hours I felt connected with all of them, although it certainly took time.

Two hours was quite long for the drama, although there was never a dull or unenjoyable moment. Wainwright clearly has a passion for the story of the three sisters, which is exhibited through the depth of her storytelling and the slightly surreal insights into their past. At times the two story focuses felt like they could have melded better, but overall they were both gripping and emotive.

The real empowering part of the plot of course was the notion that, despite the immediate setbacks facing women in those times, some were still able to overcome them (even if it did mean creating a whole new alter-ego). Wainwright made it easy for us to feel just how demotivating it must have been to be belittled due to one’s gender, which made the success towards the end even more noteworthy. It felt like a journey, and one that the viewer starts to feel part of. The story ends with a rather bizarre scene in a modern-day gift shop (advertising, perhaps?), but aside from that it’s a captivating watch throughout, and a great end to the television of 2016. 4/5


Hannah Read

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