Let’s shift away from silliness, shall we? There’s a lot of it about, this time of the year, when substantive content is rare.
So let’s talk classy British drama. Literary drama to be specific. First thing to do is consider BritBox, the streaming service established by BBC and ITV for subscribers in the United States and Canada. After a slow start earlier this year, the service is adding more consequential content for Canadians. (Toronto is its second biggest urban market in North America, by the way.) And there’s one great gem it has right now.
To Walk Invisible (streaming BritBox Canada) is magnificent. Created by Sally Wainright, who also wrote and directed the remarkable Happy Valley series, it’s a profoundly sharp and cannily contemporary take on the Bronte sisters.
It’s set in 1845 at Haworth, the Bronte home on the Yorkshire moors. Sisters Anne, Charlotte and Emily live with and their father, a retired parson who is going blind. They write stories, encouraging each other in literary endeavours. But their home life is utterly dominated by the increasingly strange and selfish antics of the other occupant, their brother Bramwell (Adam Naigituis). A drunk and self-righteous waster who claims he wants to become an artist, he is their father’s favourite, indulged child.
When the drama opens, Bramwell has been fired from a tutoring job because he’s had an affair with his employer’s wife. The house is alive with shouted arguments and denials. Then, Bramwell claims to have been robbed on a visit to London to show his artwork. He was, in fact, getting drunk in a pub not far from the moors.
What unfolds is the drama of three women coming to realize how precarious they are, living in a house they don’t own and one monopolized by an addict and a frail parent. “Kindness, consideration and prayer,” will save Bramwell, says their father, who is literally blind to his son’s brutally self-destructive impulses.
The sisters develop a confidence in their writing that is, essentially, a fierce will to survive. It’s territory that Sally Wainright has explored in Happy Valley – the no-nonsense courage and fortitude of a woman rising to a challenge when all around her is dysfunction and rage. Yet, there is nothing too conspicuous about this theme in the drama. The Bronte sisters simply have more talent than Bramwell and have the tenacity he lacks.
“We should see him for what he is, and isn’t,” says Emily (Chloe Pirrie), the most clear-eyed of the three. And when Charlotte (Finn Atkins), who will soon write Jane Eyre, tries to confront her brother about his drinking and spending habits, he makes the mistake of sneering at her literary talents.
The TV film is gorgeously made but is not a mere costume drama. It is anchored as much in the mud and rain of the landscape as it is in the slowly burning literary genius of its three Victorian heroines. Often with dramas about literary figures, there is a narrative flaw in depicting what the artist creates and how it is done. Not here. The claustrophobic atmosphere in the Bronte household, incandescent with the force of the stories and poems the women create, conveys everything.
By the way, if BritBox interests you, the service has a good new holiday-themed one-off movie, available on Dec. 24. Click & Collect stars Stephen Merchant (The Office, Extras, Hello Ladies) as a dolt of a dad who fails to buy his daughter the one Christmas gift she wants. It happens to be the hottest toy on the market and his affable but irritating neighbour (Asim Chaudhry) tracks it down. But it’s 300 miles away. A road trip ensues that has all manner of daftness. It’s all very charming and funny without being unduly sentimental.