Among the many women who became giants throughout the history of literature, none appear quiet as formative as the Brontë sisters. Condemned to live as free-thinking women in a man's world, the Brontës - steadfast Emily, passionate Charlotte, and sensitive Anne - famously wrote under pseudonyms that led publishers and audiences to believe they were men, seemingly the only path available to them that would allow them to write freely and publicly. Determined to support their family and themselves, the sisters published in a way that would allow them to be taken seriously and to not be judged or shamed for their aspirations; yet, they could never be themselves. Nonetheless, their legacies have managed to carry on through history not as the brothers (presumably) Bell, but as the sisters Brontë, where they serve as beacons of quiet courage and resilience for generations of passionate women across world-changing new territory.
Written and directed by Sally Wainwright, the two-part film To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters, which aired earlier this month on PBS as part of the treasured Masterpiece program, offers enthusiasts of the Brontës unprecedented access to the indomitable spirit of each sister. The film is a captivating portrait of the lives of these three visionary women and their tortured brother Branwell. A poet in his own right and every inch the haunted artist, perpetually unwell Branwell careens through his own life in a tragic spiral of drinking, adultery, and mental instability as his reverend father and three compassionate sisters endeavor to help him, each never quite able to give up on the brilliant but devastatingly troubled man. In many ways Branwell's life represents all the societal privileges the women would not be allowed. Despite his frequent scenes of public embarrassment, Branwell is nonetheless able to submit his writing for publishing, a situation that would incite ridicule on the women. Regardless of this, their love for their brother compels the sisters to strength as their resulting passion for their family, including their ailing father, ultimately illustrates in their character their powerful, capable, and deeply authentic humanity.
Iconic performances by a superb cast make this drama especially unforgettable. Portrayed by Chloe Pirrie and Finn Atkins, respectively, Emily and Charlotte come to life in the way their readers have always imagined they might, while the lesser-known Anne, played by Charlie Murphy, is finally given equal standing beside her larger-than-life sisters. As Adam Nagaiti's heartbreaking Branwell rages and ravages through much of the film, the viewer finds in him what his fathers and sisters always saw, and they too never cease to hope for better things for him. In the role of the Reverend Brontë, Jonathan Pryce is characteristically enchanting as a man devoted to his children and admirably dedicated to the good qualities of each. Perhaps one of the most powerful scenes involves a revelation from Charlotte and her sisters to the Reverend, from which viewers likely won't escape with a dry eye. The rawness of their realities is captured in much the same way the sisters portrayed real life in their novels, and we love them all the more for it.
At its heart, To Walk Invisible is the story of a family, and the lengths to which these passionate sisters will go to sustain it. They never reveal their identity to their brother, fearful of his instability and aware of the fact that they had achieved what Branwell’s demons kept himself from achieving. With Charlotte as Currer, Anne as Acton, and Emily as Ellis Bell, the Brontë sisters go on to secretly publish Emily’s legendary poetry followed by such novels as Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, and Jane Eyre. The audience grows deeply attached to the unique spirit of each sister, relating to some dominating emotion individual to each of them. Brilliantly captured through Wainwright’s thoughtful writing, the film unveils perhaps the most intimate experience of the Brontë family that we’ve yet to know. It's unquestionably essential viewing for Brontë enthusiasts, and a powerful reminder of the empowering courage of three revolutionary women.
To Walk Invisible will be available on Tuesday, April 11th from PBS on DVD and Blu-Ray.