One of the best literary biographies I’ve ever seen, Sally Wainwright’s film about the Bronte sisters takes place against the same grim Yorkshire landscapes as Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax, and is suffused with the same firmness, determination and steely will as well, as we follow Emily (Chloe Pirrie), Charlotte (Finn Atkins) and Anne (Charlie Murphy) as they prepare to embark upon their publication careers, while contending with the demands of brother Branwell (Adam Nagaitis) and father Patrick (Jonathan Pryce). They may be the greatest literary family in English history, but they’re very much a regular family here, as Wainwright includes just enough contemporary idiom to detach the three women from the stately images of the canon, imbuing them with a freshness and immediacy that cuts directly against their more hallowed and cult receptions. Following a brief opening glimpse of their shared childhood world of Gondal, the film opens with all three sisters in a fairly precarious position, since their father is aging, Branwell is an alcoholic, their house belongs to church trustees, and they haven’t quite embraced their vocations as writers yet. They’re both on the verge of giving up writing, and on the cusp of conceiving of their first volume of shared poetry – a situation that captures just how extraordinary and improbable it was that they published at all, let alone that every one of them published a literature-changing novel.
Throughout these early scenes, Wainwright builds a strong sense of isolation, albeit a much more pragmatic and banal sense of isolation than occurs in the moors of Emily, or the Gothic edifices of Anne and Charlotte. It’s this base material, and this mundane existence, that the three women shaped into grand solitudes and sublime depths, but for the moment all we get is the raw materials, as Wainwright captures the daily interpenetration of their lives while never quite framing them as a single entity. They may get on, or at least tolerate each other, on a daily basis, but for the most part the shared world of Gondal is a distant memory, removing any really cohesive sense of “the Brontes” as a single entity. Too individualistic, both in their temperaments and in their frustrations, to ever quite congeal into a single family unit, it’s their very differences and dissonances that actually prove most useful in getting their publication career going, since the odds are so stacked against them that no single approach, or sensibility, is enough to triumph. In that sense, publication arises from their shared isolation – from each as much as from those around them – rather than some idealised sisterhood. Within that dynamic, Charlotte tends to be the arbiter of taste and the chief strategist (it’s her idea to precede their individual novels with a collection of poetry), while Emily is the most unpredictable, and Anne is caught somewhere in between.
If anything unites the sisters, it’s their need to manage Branwell, whose alcoholism becomes more histrionic and melodramatic as the film proceeds, to the point where the whole family dynamic is dictated by the need to contain his temper and self-loathing. As a failed poet, failed artist and failed novelist, his frustration sends one convulsion after another through the family and household, leaving his father Patrick utterly incapable of dealing with him, and leaving the burden of Patrick’s parenthood, and Branwell’s need for ongoing parenthood, to the three sisters. No surprise, then, that the looming men of their novels come to feel like a compensation for (or a conversation with) Branwell, a way of reincluding him in their shared imaginative universe despite himself. Yet there’s also something about the spectacle of Branwell unable to live up to the ideals of masculinity – the spectacle of a man even more debilitated by sexism than women – that is more disheartening to the sisters than even the harshest prospect of literary rejection, causing all but Emily to gradually distance themselves from him as the film proceeds. Their lives are thus contoured by patriarchy, but devoid of any masculine role models – Pryce’s voice, always slightly histrionic, works perfectly here – as Branwell becomes the abject epicentre of the family, but also displaces the family centre as well. As a result, the three sisters are perpetually relegated to the peripheries of the family, even as they provide it with what little structure and stability it has, since the absence of any male authority this family is entirely periphery.
To that end, Wainwright ensures that the womens’ whole lives, including their literary success, takes place in the background of Branwell’s dramas. They never quite feel at home in their own home, or inhabit the big entry hall at the centre of their house in a convincing way, instead finding themselves shuttled from one small room to the next, or else forced to convene in awkward and makeshift spaces between the front door and the street, fully exposed to the bleak winds coming off the nearby moors. Their body language also feels continually jettisoned from any place to call home, epitomised by a brilliant moment in which a local man goes to his knee to get his hat, and momentarily looks as if he might propose to Charlotte, only to abruptly depart the scene, leaving both Charlotte and the atmosphere of the film unmoored and unsettled by this fleeting marriage tableau. Even the sisters’ success takes place in the background, since we only learn about the massive sales of Jane Eyre as part of a discussion in which the sisters strategise how the family might remain solvent as Branwell deteriorates. In fact, it’s their desire – and especially Emily’s desire – to keep their success secret from Branwell that robs the film of any genuinely cathartic or celebratory moment, rendering it doubly poignant that both Emily and Anne passed away as the result of a chill that Emily contracted during Branwell’s funeral in 1848.
What remains, instead, is a bracing vision of the barren, denuded and decidedly unromantic spaces where these three women’s imaginations flourished – spaces that left them nothing but their imagination – as well as their collective realisation that ‘”seas are milder than this world’s turmoil,” as Emily observes in one of her poems. At no point does Wainwright project the glory the sisters posthumously received back on to their lives, drawing a sharp distinction between past and present by finally seguing into the Bronte house in 2016, and resituating it back within the contemporary Yorkshire landscape of her other television releases. The contrast between the womens’ lives and the gift store, and between the bleakness of the film and the preserved objects in the present, is unbearably poignant, part of Wainwright’s wider prescience that the futures of all three women were circumscribed, and that they the futures they longed for would only occur posthumously, and in some senses still haven’t occurred. In the final stages of the film, Wainwright positions all three at a threshold between the futures they could imagine, and the futures they couldn’t imagine – a threshold that corresponds to the moors, whose wuthering romanticism is gradually stripped away here to become a place where the finitude of their lives and futures is clearest, but also a place where they glimpse a future and figurative possibility for themselves in English culture that they can’t ever fully know. Appropriately, then, it’s only here that Gondal briefly becomes available to them again, in the penultimate scene, where a trick of the light turns the burning halos of their childhood world into three distinct suns – a Brocken Spectre of the kind that haunted so much contemporary Gothic literature, and which momentarily turns the Brontes from authors to actors in a drama that they have helped create, but whose final product they can never fully comprehend or properly inhabit.