Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Brontës Who Walked and Lived

I approach movies based on the novels of the Brontës with hesitation: some are good, while others are so far from the content or theme of the original that it hardly seems fair to slap the same title on them. I've literally stopped watching at least one no more than ten minutes in. It would follow, then, that I might wonder how filmmmakers would approach a movie about the Brontës themselves.

2016's To Walk Invisible (written and directed by Sally Wainwright), however, does not aim at romanticizing or embellishing. As such, it is quite a stark film. It just shows life--how three women in the nineteenth century came to be published writers. Emily, the fiery and bold one who is somehow also the most private one. Anne, the solidly good woman, the peaceful spirit in spite of all she has seen in life. Charlotte, somewhere in between the two. Then also their brother Branwell, who has given in to the worst of life and so has, essentially, chosen alcoholism over the childhood hopes of writing. Their father, who is getting up in years.

The very title suggests the anonymity and quietness of these sisters (in certain contexts) and the film does indeed show it. They talk amongst themselves and they talk to others, but they are also largely silent even during moments when a modern script might inaccurately choose to have them speak. For instance, their father will come in and speak to the sisters are length, then leave. They listen but don't speak. Not because they had nothing to say but because that was the place of a nineteenth century woman. We're used to period films in which the women are always talking, but that's because the scenes are either inaccurate or because they mainly take place in social situations. Day to day life for a Victorian woman included much silence. This film expressed that--and not in a way that criticizes it, either. Charlotte still goes to talk to her father about important matters and to give her opinion and they have a good relationship; things were just different.

What captivates me (and so many of us) about the Brontës is their blending of fantasy and reality. Charlotte uses the greatest touch of fantasy in her writing. But even Emily, who would seem not to, who would seem to be writing about very harsh and real things, is writing with this sense of the fantastical. What is so captivating is that these women loved imagination and they also had very much seen the real world and all that it is (both the good and the bad) and so they saw the importance of real life. They, in a sense, saw that fantastical quality in real life--and then wrote about real life in a way that gave it that elevated sense of meaning.

That's what this film reminded me. Real life can be brutal. Real life can be gorgeous. Real life can be dull. Real life can be exciting. Life, with all of its intensities, whether family, friends, sickness, wealth or lack of, weather, fear, faith--life.

Sometimes it is when we walk quietly that we are able to see all that life is. Maybe no one even sees us as we're doing so--but it doesn't matter because we are living. The Brontës didn't create their great work later on when all the world knew their names (well, okay, Charlotte did some of it once she became publicly respected, but even then her fame wasn't to the degree that it is today). They did it in the quiet--and they would have done so even if time forgot them. Do you see what I mean? It's great when time remembers people (like John Keats) who didn't receive much recognition during their lives. But the truly wondrous thing is that, even if time forgets your name, if you lived, then that is your incredible achievement and it is not negated.

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