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