TV Review: Sally Wainwright’s ‘To Walk Invisible’ on PBS Masterpiece
In the flood of spring TV options, it would be easy for “To Walk Invisible” to get lost. It shouldn’t be.
“To Walk Invisible” will no doubt be catnip to a few different subcategories of TV fans: Those who enjoy costume dramas, those who can’t get enough of films about creative types, those who simply appreciate well-made films with strong but subtly conveyed points of view, and those who enjoy the work of Sally Wainwright, the creator of “Happy Valley.”
For those who fall into all four groups, “To Walk Invisible,” which serves up an intense glimpse into the lives of the Brontë sisters, will fly by.
At the outset, it’s important to offer a warning that also applies to the great Netflix series “Happy Valley,” one of the finest offerings in all of television: The Northern accents of the characters take some getting used to. I’ve spent enough time in the U.K. to consider myself fairly well acquainted with the various accents north of London, and I still find the cop show’s dialogue a little hard to follow at times.
Fortunately, the occasional “wait, what was that?” moments didn’t intrude much on my palpable enjoyment of “To Walk Invisible.” My only substantive complaint is that it’s not a miniseries; certainly the lives of the Brontës could fill up several seasons of TV (and maybe someday they will).
To ensure that the film is not overstuffed and ungainly, Wainwright wisely broke off only a small portion of the writers’ lives for this tart and insightful project. “To Walk Invisible” focuses tightly on a three-year period in which the Brontës decide to publish their work. Their efforts were partly an attempt to forestall a financial crisis in the event of the death of their kindly but dithering father, the Rev. Patrick Brontë (Jonathan Pryce). Anne, Emily and Charlotte come vividly to life as they decide on their pseudonyms, engage with publishers via correspondence, and diligently crank out some of the works that eventually made them famous.
Rumbling through much of the drama is the darker twin of the story about a creative breakthrough. “To Walk Invisible” is also an honest and wrenching look at what it is like to live with an addict. Much of the mental, spiritual and physical energy in the Brontë house was expended on the sisters’ beloved but doomed brother, Branwell.
The word “doomed” is apt in a number of ways: It brings to mind the kind of noble, turbulent romanticism that the Brontës were known for, and the heedless Branwell possessed some of those qualities. As the opening of the film demonstrates, when they were children, he and his sisters had constructed fantastic worlds and shared mental universes that bonded them all in deep and unbreakable ways. One of the most subtle accomplishments of the film is that the sisters’ love for Branwell is always understandable, even when he’s at his worst — and as he falls deeper and deeper into alcohol and drug addiction, his worst becomes very challenging.
“To Walk Invisible” may be about a group of artists, but it is flinty in its realism and quite unsentimental about what Branwell’s decline was like to witness. The Brontës were far from rich, but they had a larger house than most, and somehow Branwell and his unstoppable decline managed to invade almost all of it. Even in the rooms he does not occupy, the sadness and tragedy of his situation is unavoidable, and the sisters’ glances at each other are enough to convey the weight of what they’re bearing. They love him, but everything he puts them through is not only painful, it takes them away from their life’s work (and the household tasks they were still expected to perform). Their ferocious frustration comes through in the fiction and poetry they did manage to finish before the untimely deaths of two of the sisters.
Wainwright expertly explores the idea that while the expectations for Branwell just about crushed him, the fact that nothing was expected of his sisters goaded them into acts of creation that burn with a fire that readers can still sense today.
“To Walk Invisible” also sketches a beautiful portrait of the sisters’ connection to the wild landscape around them; a love for the natural world of their beloved Haworth fed into the yearning richness of their work. The film makes it easy to wish for more stories about each sister and the individual experiences she went through before and after all three were finally published. At least we still have their poetry and novels, which allow us to be impressed, as Wainwright clearly is, by what these driven and compassionate women accomplished in such a short amount of time.