To Walk Invisible (2016) – Better Bronte, but Still Not Best

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To Walk Invisible (2016) is the latest attempt to look at the life of the Brontë sisters, this time by the BBC, and premiering on PBS in America. I’ve reviewed a whole bunch of Brontë biopics already, so I had high expectations for this one. And … I was moderately pleased and somewhat disappointed. I guess there isn’t going to be a perfect version of the Brontë sisters’ story until I write it for TV, but I’m spending all my free time here at Frock Flicks after my day-job. Oh well.

At 120 minutes in length, To Walk Invisible keeps a sprightly pace, unlike previous biopics, while leaving just enough time to pause over the poetry and wild scenery. The story is tightly focused on the years from approximately 1845 — after Branwell Brontë was dismissed from tutoring at Thorp Green, where he had an affair with the mistress of the house — to 1848, at Branwell’s death. That this TV movie ostensibly about Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë begins and ends with events in their brother’s life is telling. Yes, once again, we get a little too much of the brother instead of the sisters.

To Walk Invisible (2016)

In one way, I could see why writer/director Sally Wainwright was doing this, as if to show how living constrained by their brother’s recklessness and alcoholism spurred the three sisters, especially Charlotte, on to publish their writing. There’s a powerful scene early between Emily and Charlotte where the two are complaining about their father and brother, along with Charlotte’s infatuation with her Brussels’ professor. Emily focuses on how these men make life complicated for the sisters, but Charlotte sees the bigger picture, saying ‘men infantilize women’ and male society doesn’t let women be all they can be. It’s as close to a feminist moment as the movie has.

But these small messages are few and far between in comparison to the coddling and capitulating the sisters do in favor of their brother’s needs (and to a lesser extent, their father’s). I feel like so many Branwell scenes are wasted and unnecessary. I don’t care where he goes or what he does — he’s a loser, he’s boring, he’s useless! Forget about him on film, and show more of Charlotte writing to the publishers or make her and Anne’s trip to London longer. But the worst sin of all was ending the movie exactly at Branwell’s death. That was not the end of the Brontë sisters, you know. Emily died soon after, but Anne died nearly a year later, and Charlotte lived until 1855! For all her ambition, Charlotte got short-shrift in To Walk Invisible with this abrupt ending.

To Walk Invisible (2016)

 

Costumes in To Walk Invisible

Since the story was OK but ultimately disappointing, I’m going to talk about the costumes. Which were generally historically accurate and added a lot of color, literally, into the Brontë sisters’ usually dull biography. In a Masterpiece PBS video, costume designer Tom Pye described working on To Walk Invisible:

“She [director Sally Wainwright] was very keen that the look of the family was authentic and based in fact. The other thing she was very keen on that the colors didn’t look drab. It wasn’t all grey and brown. I found as I researched that she was 100% correct.”

This is even more interesting to me because Pye has a rather short resume, mostly as production designer and art director for opera and theater. He’s not the usual designer for historical costume TV series in Britain. Go him for making a lateral career move! He definitely did his historical research, while also letting that ‘big picture’ design sense come through.

I’m not even going to talk about the men’s costuming because fuck them, and their clothes aren’t as interesting as the women’s. So I’ll start with Charlotte Brontë. Her wardrobe is all serious business with jacket, blouse, and skirt combos that are like her version of a power suit. She also wears the darkest colors of all the sisters and more plaid. However, I must note that her costumes push the timeline — they inch a lot closer to the 1850s than 1840s.

To Walk Invisible (2016)

Charlotte tromps around in this style of jacket over her plaid gowns.

To Walk Invisible (2016)

Tom Pye’s sketch for Charlotte’s plaid dress and fitted jacket.

1845, printed silk satin English dress, V&A Museum

1845, printed silk satin English dress, V&A Museum.

To Walk Invisible (2016)

A behind-the-scenes shot of Charlotte & Anne in their ‘Sunday best’ clothes.

To Walk Invisible (2016)

The wide lapels seem a little off to me, but it’s nice to see all the period accessories, like the purses and gloves.

To Walk Invisible (2016)

Tom Pye’s sketch for Charlotte’s ‘Sunday best’ yellow outfit.

To Walk Invisible (2016)

This is Charlotte’s other favorite style — it’s more common post-1845 than before.

1849, Graham's Magazine

Fashion plate from Graham’s Magazine, 1849, via Wikimedia Commons. These are Charlotte’s two favorite looks!

Emily Brontë is often shown doing household chores — reasonably enough, as she was more of a homebody than the other sisters. Her dress sleeves are rolled up so she can kneed bread or wash linens, and she wears an apron. Note that she always has her hair put up while doing housework, because she is a grown-ass woman, this is the 1840s, and they aren’t so poor they can’t afford hairpins, thankyouverymuch. She even leaves her hair up when wandering the moors, proving that high gothic drama does not require flowing tresses (or white nightgowns either! I don’t recall seeing a single one in this film *gasp*). Emily’s clothes are the simplest of the sisters, although still clearly appropriate for the time and place.

To Walk Invisible (2016)

Emily, writing away, wearing a puffed-sleeve gown, one of the various styles worn throughout the 1830s-40s.

1845, yellow cotton dress, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The textiles in this film seem to be reproductions of period styles. Compare with this 1845 yellow cotton dress, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

1840 British cotton dress, Metropolitan Museum of Art

1840 British cotton dress, Metropolitan Museum of Art

To Walk Invisible (2016)

Emily wandering the moors — the first onscreen depiction that doesn’t make her look like a cliche.

1840-45, American or European cotton dress, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

1840-45, American or European cotton dress, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

To Walk Invisible (2016)

At least Emily’s indignation (often over Branwell) shows off the intricate smocking on her sleeves. Hey, smart costumer trick!

The purple-ish dress, above right is actually printed with thunderclouds and lightning bolts. I have no idea how historically accurate it is, but in a Masterpiece PBS video, Chloe Pirrie who plays Emily, says: “Apparently, Emily did have a dress that had a thunder and lighting pattern on it, which is amazing. It’s sort of telling of her character.”

To Walk Invisible (2016)

Emily’s ‘lighting-print’ dress.

Anne Brontë is overshadowed by her older sisters, much like her writing would be. Yet her clothes show refinement and grace, often with the most precise fit of any of them all.

To Walk Invisible (2016)

Note the fine tucks on Anne’s bodice.

To Walk Invisible (2016)

Anne wearing her ‘Sunday best’ in London, complete with reticule, gloves, and shawl.

To Walk Invisible (2016)

Tom Pye’s sketch for Anne’s ‘Sunday best’ outfit.

One last costume worth noting is that of Ellen Nussey. I give this production major props for including her at all — she was Charlotte’s only real friend outside of her sisters, and the two had a long correspondence from childhood until Charlotte’s death. That she rates a visit onscreen is accurate, since she was a rare visitor to the Brontë Parsonage.

To Walk Invisible (2016)

Ellen is snappy in stripes. The color scheme is very harmonious here, with her gown in blue and green stripes and the coachman in tones of mauve.

 

What did you think of To Walk Invisible, the story or the costumes?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. When she’s not dressing up in costumes, she can be found traveling the world with her sweetie and, occasionally, Kendra and Sarah. Her costuming and travel adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also maintains a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

36 Responses

  1. Susan Pola

    I enjoyed it but also felt that it could have been titled ‘To Walk Drunkenly – The Story of Bramwell Bronte’. In a previous post I also added is there a polite term for ‘Little Sh*t’ in referencing thus incredibly boring and useless person.
    What I did like we’re : 1) women wore their hair up in Bobby Pins/Kirby Clips,
    2) No one wore diaphanous nightgowns in traversing the moor,
    3) The colour of the clothes wasn’t drab but in a colour that was telling about each sister.
    4) The sisters were a tight unit: loyal, loving and encouraged each other.

    What I didn’t like was Bramwell, Bramwell, etc ad nauseum. Why didn’t it show more of their creative process?

    Aside but did anyone else feel that the actress who played Charlotte resembled Shirley Henderson?

    Reply
    • Margo Anderson

      Bobby pins weren’t invented till 1899. The Bronte sisters would have used U-shaped hairpins.

      Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      To Walk Drunkenly – The Story of Bramwell Bronte — HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! Yes, he is a little shit, there is no other word for it. I mean, sure, you can’t ignore how important a presence he was in their lives, but films don’t need to dwell on every last drunken episode of his. They could show the affect he has without showing *him* all the time. UGH.

      Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Oh yes, how lovely! I couldn’t find any other interviews with the designer, bec. I really wanted to know where he sourced those fabrics. They’re such good repros.

      Reply
  2. Daniel Milford-Cottam

    Gosh, the casting is VERY good here on the three sisters too – the actresses do feel right for each sister. I look at them, and I feel like they are their books realised as people – Emily intense and focused and a bit brooding, Anne perceptive and intelligent with a touch of vulnerability as if slightly scared of her own insightfulness, and Charlotte as down-to-business and slightly cynical.

    The costuming is fantastic and very class-appropriate too. I’m definitely impressed. I do think the thunder and lightning dress may be meant to be an abstract floral, but it DOES have that effect – there were so many unusual prints from this time period that look surprisingly modern/abstract/even cubist.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Agreed, the casting was spot on — which makes the Bramwell parts hurt even more! I want to see more Anne as a governess or Emily & Charlotte fighting or Charlotte’s later life, just more of the sisters, the were excellent.

      Reply
  3. heatherbelles

    Excellent recap. I live about 15 mins away from Haworth, so I got to see bits of this being filmed.

    I thoroughly enjoyed it. The Parsonage were quite heavily involved with this, so I’m not suprised the history/dresses were well done. The dress you’re showing Emily at the table – I’ve seen one in museum storage with exactly the same print!

    I agree that I’d have preferred less Bramwell, more sisters, and less of a truncated ending. (although spotting familar faces *right* at the end was fun!)

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      I found a lot of behind-the-scenes info about how the team built a replica of the Parsonage, both for convenience of shooting the outdoor scenes & bec. there weren’t trees around it during the Brontes’ lives, but including that shifted too much focus away from the costumes. But I really enjoyed going down that rabbit hole of research! I’ve visited twice all the way form the U.S. & LOVED IT to pieces (yes, I am *that* fan :).

      Reply
      • heatherbelles

        It’s not just the trees – the Parsonage itself has been altered, so it made sense to rebuild it.

        The street scenes are Haworth itself though – those misty mornings were shot on a blazingly hot day in summer last year. I was melting in my light blouse and linen trousers, goodness knows how the actors were coping!

        What I really enjoyed was that it emphasised the nearness of Haworth to things – the isolation of the sisters isn’t physical in nature – Halifax, Bradford and Keighley were all frequently mentioned (and visited), but that the sisters chose to isolate themselves from others- particuarly Emily, I’d say it was made clear in this drama.

        We know they regularly visited Keighley to shop – and frequent the Mechanics Institute library etc.

        If you come for a further visit to Haworth, can I suggest a detour to Keighley, and Cliffe Castle – it’s about 15 mins away, and gloriously over the top!

        I still do wish we’d got more of the sisters at the end!

        Reply
  4. Sharon

    I agree that Bramwell had too much attention, but, as you said, maybe having him around so much on screen highlights just how much of a negative impact he had on those amazingly talented women. There he was, talented but unable to stick at anything, inconstant, drunk, self pitying and shallow, taking all his parents attention and faith, in sharp contrast to the depth and intensity of his sisters, I was rolling my ears and muttering under my breath about 10 minutes in.
    The costumes took me by surprise, they were much more pretty and colourful than I’d expected and the tall combs, like Spanish women wear with mantillas, so elegant.

    Reply
  5. Charity

    Bramwell, oh how I loathe thee
    A movie on the Bronte sisters I tuned in to see
    Cast this drunken lout far from me
    And return to the story of those noble three

    Reply
  6. Black Tulip

    One detail I loved about this (apart from the hairpins, obvs) was that Ellen arrived in a coach which was absolutely filthy, with mud all up the sides. So often in costume dramas people seem to arrive at the end of a long journey in a pristine coach.

    Reply
    • Susan Pola

      And the dirty arrival clothes were probably not only mud but whatever animals left until street…
      I’m glad also that the clothes were also Silas’s appropriate.
      Would like to see the costume designer work on more period shows. Mr Pye gets an A-/B+ for his work.

      Reply
  7. AshleyOlivia

    I only caught the last 25 minutes of it, but I can’t stop thinking about that scene where Branwell spits a bunch of blood into Emily’s face and the camera holds the scene for like a solid minute.
    UGH!

    Reply
  8. Kathryn MacLennan

    I liked how the three sisters stood out from the rather drab backgrounds in their colourful dresses. I also would have liked way less Branwell and more of the sisters. I liked the characterizations, though. It really matched everything I know about them from reading biographies and surviving letters and journals. I loved Emily being portrayed as quite forceful and totally done with all Branwell’s nonsense, which is always the vision I’ve had of her. Maybe since they actually rebuilt the parsonage for this (which was quite impressive), they will use it for future productions. Really, I would like the updated (and better) version of the Brontës of Haworth to be filmed there one day.

    Reply
  9. Chang

    I love the scene where the sisters finally told their father about their successful books and he looked so genuinely happy and proud of his daughters after being depressed for so long over his ne’er do well son.

    Reply
  10. Allison

    Ellen’s green striped outfit looks very familiar. Like from a certain lovely scene at the end of North and South?

    Reply
  11. Jenno

    I watched this production knowing almost nothing of the real Bronte sisters, only having read Jane Eyre and seen several films of it. Without that context, the combination of the brisk storytelling and Yorkshire accents left me confused. It was only after an hour down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia and a re-watch that I understood *why* they had to rush to London — they didn’t all use the same publisher for their first books — ohhhhhh! now I get it. To me that’s a sign of bad writing, or maybe some bits were cut in the transition from the BBC to PBS. Either way, you shouldn’t have to *know* the story to *follow* the story.

    From a costuming point of view, I thought the dresses were rather fine for clergyman’s daughters, until Wikipedia helpfully filled in the bit about their inheritance from their Aunt Branwell, that enabled them not to have work as governesses anymore and perhaps financed the quite nice wardrobe we see here. I’ve started to pay more attention to whether clothes look new or well-worn in costume dramas, and most everything here looked very fresh, except on Branwell of course.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      They were clergyman’s daughters, but they weren’t poor. The Brontes’ had plenty of books & fine things. There are a couple of Charlotte’s gowns that survive & are on exhibit at the Parsonage these days, & they’re in the fashionable cut of the period, using quite fashionable materials. I recall a delicately sprigged blue gown & her mauve silk wedding gown, several beautifully trimmed bonnets, a fine (& tiny!) pair of silk shoes, & some lovely jewelry.

      Previous TV/film versions of their lives have gone too far in making the Bronte sisters look drab & dull, wearing nothing but one brown-grey dress each. I think this version does an excellent job showing each woman wearing a small wardrobe of discreetly fashionable clothes that would have been realistically accessible to them.

      Their main financial concern, which Charlotte obsesses over in this film, is what will become of them when their father & Branwell are gone.

      Reply
  12. Thea

    Thank you! Can we meet and provide a sound thrashing to Sally Wainwright? These woman were facing down 1. having little to no means of making an independent living 2. homelessness after their father died because the house went with his job 3. The ongoing indignity of being dismissed as ‘women’ but by all means lets focus on their 19th century meth head of a brother. His failures weren’t just a disgrace to the family but a threat to their minister father’s job and the entire family’s livelihood (see homelessness above). THIS is one of key factors in the sister’s drive to create a living for themselves. For this bs to come from a woman writer/director is insult to injury. I say we grab her behind the pub with a sock full of quarters

    Reply
  13. D.

    The thunder & lightening dress is first metioned by A. Mary F. Robinson in her biography of Emily, written in 1883: “It was Emily who, shopping in Bradford with Charlotte and her friend [Ellen Nussey], chose a white stuff patterned with lilac thunder and lightning, to the scarcely concealed horror of her more sober companions. And she looked well in it; a tall, lithe creature, with a grace half-queenly, half-untamed in her sudden, supple movements, wearing with picturesque negligence her ample purple-splashed skirts; her face clear and pale; her very dark and plenteous brown hair fastened up behind with a Spanish comb;” (full text: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25789/25789-h/25789-h.htm) This description based on the memories of Ellen Nussey.

    Reply
  14. Emily K

    Hello, Emily from the Brontë Link here (find us on Instagram!). What a glorious post. As the previous comment states, Emily did have a dress printed with lightning bolts however there is some confusion as to whether the print was, as Robinson states, cream and lilac, or whether the dress as a whole was violet (as I think described by Ellen Nussey). It appears that the designer in TWI went for the more purplish fabric. One further point is that Ellen described the dress as ’embroidered’ with lightning (which would have meant hand stitching!) but perhaps print is meant. We know the girls DID wear almost exclusively print, and mostly delaine – which is an old fashioned material from wool – but it seems the designer here did not know about the delaine..? Anyway OTHER than dresses – i completely agree about Branwell. It’s SUCH an irritation considering; but I suppose it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the specifics of the three unique stories. Dear me – dear us – never mind. Hopefully more versions will come in the future ..! Xxx

    Reply
    • Daniel Milford-Cottam

      I think that, given the costs of hand-embroidered fabric, embroidered was used to mean a printed textile too, or perhaps a fabric that was woven with a design that had an embroidered effect, like brocade weave. It could also have been a print that had an “embroidery stitch” effect, although I can’t immediately think of any specific examples of prints like this, I’m sure I must have seen some.

      Reply
  15. Lynn Mutch

    I visited the Bronte Parsonage Museum a couple of weeks ago. They have the costumes from the film on show all over the house so you can have a really close look at them. They also have shoes and accesories that really belonged to the sisters which was very exciting. I’d recommend a visit if you ever get the chance!

    Reply
  16. Grace

    It was wonderful to watch, but was too short! I was immersed in the story, and it ended very abruptly. Bramwell really had a huge influence on the sisters’ lives so if the series was longer, then I would be fine keeping those scenes in. But since the movie could only be 2hrs, then yes some of the Bramwell scenes should have been replaced with more of the sisters’ interactions. But there’s so much more to be told even after Emily and Anne’s deaths. This really should have been at least 4 episodes long. The pacing felt perfect, and the filming, set, costumes, acting was so well done. It’s such a shame it was so short :( Should have just gone all out. Kudos though to those fleeting humorous scenes featuring a certain Mr. Nicholls. I was tickled.

    Reply

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