TV dramatist Sally Wainwright’s story of how the Bronte sisters got their work published using androgynous nom-de-plumes is an excellent character study, with a bracingly unsentimental, somewhat gloomy tone. But the struggle to get published, and the relationships between the three very different women, is somewhat overshadowed by the main storyline focusing on Branwell, their only brother and his personal demons, as he tried and failed to battle alcoholism. Adam Nagaitis is superb in the role- one minute, a tender and loving man; the next, a screaming bloody mess. His thwarted affair with a married woman only facilitates his desperation, finding solace in the bottle, as the sisters write manuscripts in secret as Currer, Acton and Ellis Bell, fearful the work will not be picked up by publishers upon realising their sex.Inevitably, the drink kills him.
It’s a bit of a shame it’s filtered through Branwell, and as a result the drama takes a while to hit its stride. When Branwell dies, the women’s true selves are revealed- Finn Atkins’ Charlotte is serious and ambitious; Anne (Charlie Murphy) somewhat mousy, and Emily a bolshy mother substitute. It’s Chloe Pirrie who sits front and centre of the narrative arc as Emily- not afraid to be gobby, or throw a punch if she has to. Father Patrick (Jonathan Pryce) is given less to do, and simply reacts, but his meek and mild minister informs the integrity of the ladies’ upbringing.
Some of the dialogue is a little questionable- ‘gender’ and ‘trashed the place’, with a liberal sprinkling of the f word- but Wainwright’s refusal to use archaic language actually pays off, in keeping with the mud, horse shit, butcher’s meat and blood caking David Raedeker’s impressive town cinematography.This is not the idealised chocolate box Bronte world of O level school documentary features, but a grim Haworth, W Yorkshire where options were limited, and London a whole other world.
As unpleasant as some scenes are,though, it’s an absorbing, tough look at the sheer determination and might of women novelists and poets striving to be heard amid the deafening noise of men’s voices. There is a footnote following their readers in the gift shop (once their house) in the present day, showing the impact of an unstoppable Bronte legacy.
(Spoilt Victorian Child)
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