Friday, April 21, 2017

Watch This: To Walk Invisible

To Walk Invisible: The Lives of the Brontë Sisters

Look, I'm not going to mince words here. To Walk Invisible is a surprisingly beautiful, yet painfully authentic look at the real life experiences of these three remarkable women. And it's that "real life" aspect that was so important to capture, since that was precisely what they wrote about, and what caused their novels to be so controversial at the time.

The brilliant Sally Wainwright wrote and directed this television film, bringing the same passion for the story and compassion for her characters that she has given two of my favorite female-centric British dramas, Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax. In fact, Wainwright has made a career out of telling the stories of women, both from history and from modern times. And it looks like she's going to continue this trend with her next project Shibden Hall, a series about the life of Anne Lister, who was an adventurer, mountaineer, traveler, and who has been called "the first modern lesbian."

I am certainly no expert on the lives or works of the Brontë Sisters, having only read Charlotte's Jane Eyre. In fact, I remember being somewhat overwhelmed with the bleakness of the story when I first read it as a teen, and subsequently refused to even consider reading Emily's Wuthering Heights. Reading Jane Eyre again a few years ago when I was quite a bit more mature, I was better able to appreciate the story's brutal honesty about the lives of its characters and place the story into its historical context.

I am a bit ashamed to admit that Wuthering Heights is still on my to-read list. After watching To Walk Invisible I am inspired to move it closer to the top, along with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne.

If you know even a little about the lives of these three sisters, you may be a bit worried this film will be filled with tragedy. And rightly so. The level of misfortune this poor family experienced in one generation is heartbreaking to read about with nearly 200 years distance. Fortunately, while the deaths of their mother and older sisters are briefly mentioned, this film picks up the story when they are all adults and those deaths are well behind them.

It takes place over the short period where the three sisters and their brother Branwell were all living at home again with their father. After a short introduction to the imaginary childhood adventures the four of them dreamed up, we quickly learn that Branwell is struggling to adjust to the demands of adult life and unable to stay sober long enough to pursue his passion for writing or painting. The three sisters, feeling trapped in the constricting gender roles of the 1840s, devise a plan to become published authors themselves, keeping it a secret from everyone else, including their father, and especially their brother. Together, they conspire to write a collection of poems to be published under pseudonyms, and then use that as a means to launch their careers as novelists. And, remarkably, it works.

The story has plenty of drama and sadness. And while the film ends on a sad note, what lingers in my mind is the earlier triumph when the three sisters finally share their secret with their father, who is absolutely thrilled to learn his three living daughters are all successful authors. The scene where Charlotte reveals to him that she is the author of Jane Eyre in one of my favorites. He is initially surprised and maybe even a bit skeptical, but then he is overcome with pride. And I was overcome with emotion as well.

More than anything, though, what I love the most about this film is its depiction of the relationships between these women. The tender and loving bond between Anne and Emily is so refreshing and actually quite moving. We so rarely see that level of physical contact between two people on screen that isn't sexual. And the genuine respect and support each sister gives the others makes this film one I will watch again and again. To Walk Invisible earns the Self-Rescuing Princess Society seal of approval for many reasons, but especially for its representation of female friendships.

If you have not watched it yet, I highly recommend To Walk Invisible. I was able to stream it through PBS Masterpiece because I am a member of my local PBS station. Otherwise, if it is no longer being broadcast by your local station, you may have to purchase it through iTunes or Amazon. It is worth the cost, trust me.

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