To Walk Invisible review: a well-acted but unfocused tribute to the Brontë sisters
Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax creator Sally Wainwright's passion project on BBC1 is extremely faithful to a fault
This warts-and-all dramatisation of the lives of the famous writing sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë features vomiting blood, an assault against an old man, swearing and a sense of general grimness that wouldn’t feel out of place in writer/director Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley (an impression that may be helped by the fact that several of that programme’s actors, including Charlie Murphy and James Norton, pop up in roles of various sizes).
Set around a short period in the sisters’ lives that included their brother Branwell’s (Adam Nagaitis) decline and the publication of their novels, To Walk Invisible is a long-gestating passion project for Wainwright, and that definitely shows onscreen.
As usual, the depth and honesty of the relationships between her female characters is impressively authentic, but it’s bolstered by Wainwright’s evident love and knowledge of Brontë lore from the make-believe games they played as children (inventing sagas set in fictional countries called Gondal and Angria) to the specific dimensions of the Haworth Parsonage where they wrote their great works (the entire set, including outdoor areas was built from scratch on location in Yorkshire).
The drama is also peppered with brilliant performances, from Jonathan Pryce’s genial yet haunted patriarch Patrick Brontë and Nagaitis’ charismatically pathetic Branwell to all three sisters. Chloe Pirrie in particular delivers a stormy take on Wuthering Heights author Emily Brontë, a Catherine Cawood of the 19th century who slaps down her siblings, spends her time striding over the bleak moors and reacts with glee to real-life tales of passion and revenge (a highlight sees her breathily recounting the tale of a Heathcliff-like villain to her unimpressed sister Anne, who was far less enamoured of her two sisters’ style of Byronic hero in her own works).
However, Wainwright’s passion for the subject matter is also the drama’s weakness. At two hours the story feels indulgently long, and seems to assume a certain level of Brontë knowledge from its audience lest they be left behind (a lot of references to the young Brontë's juvenilia fall into this category).
Dramatically, by contrast, certain scenes feel the need to hold the audience by the hand, with characters delivering emotionally expositional dialogue about their struggles as women in a man’s world that feel a little on-the-nose for writers who wrote with such subtlety.
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Finn Atkins, Chloe Pirrie and Charlie Murphy as Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë
Meanwhile, the subject of the drama as a whole is a little unfocused – to some extent it’s chronicling the downfall of Branwell as he succumbs to self-pity and drunkenness (after a doomed affair with an older woman at his tutoring job), but it’s also concerned with the sisters’ literary success and attempts to get published. Doubtlessly the two threads were inextricably linked in real life, but somehow in this case the two halves to the story feel a little disjointed, the sisters’ great literary triumph lacking some of the emotional intensity of their scenes with Branwell and thus feeling a little flat.
The end result is a well-acted and unusually historically accurate drama that just feels a little overwhelmed by the responsibility of doing the Brontës and their legacy justice, culminating in a slightly bizarre segue to the present day Haworth Parsonage which serves as little more than a plug for the gift shop. It has some excellent qualities, but overall To Walk Invisible is not quite the full Brontë.