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Brontes of Haworth, The

Release Year:      1973
Studio:      Acorn Media
Format:      Colour; NTSC; Miniseries
Rated:      Not Rated
# of Discs/Episodes:      2/5
Running Time:      260 minutes
DVD Release Date:      February 7, 2012

Screenwriter:      Christopher Fry
Directors:      Marc Miller
Actors:      Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Vickery Turner, Ann Penfold, Rosemary McHale, Alfred Burke, Michael Kitchen
DVD Features:      SDH subtitles; Background on the Brontes’ home in Haworth
E: Top Picks Rating:      10

Acorn Media Write-up: 
Written by poet and playwright Christopher Fry (“The Lady’s Not For Burning”), this finely crafted portrait explores the soaring artistic achievements and personal tragedies of England’s most accomplished literary family, the Brontes. Featuring a stellar ensemble cast and an outstanding script, this acclaimed period drama is a sensitive exploration of the Brontes’ tender and tragic family history. The miniseries aired in the UK in 1973 but has not aired on US television.

Under the care of their father, the Reverend Patrick Bronte (Alfred Burke), siblings Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne have a childhood rich in learning and imagination. As the precocious youths grow into adults, however, son Branwell (Michael Kitchen) struggles to live up to his family’s high expectations, and the women have difficulty adapting to the world outside of Haworth. While the sisters eventually find commercial success and critical acclaim for their writing, Branwell descends into self-destruction, triggering a series of misfortunes that beset the family. This period drama authentically explores the family history that is as much the Bronte legacy as their literary works.

Jon Ted Wynne Review: 
Watching this exceptional five-part series about the Bronte family of artists is a fascinating experience. Consider this: a widowed country clergyman has six children to raise (with help from his sister-in-law and a devoted housekeeper). The two eldest children have died before the story begins. This leaves son Branwell, who everyone describes as brilliant and destined for artistic greatness, and his three sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne. If you didn’t already know that the three sisters were to achieve literary greatness with their respective novels JANE EYRE, WUTHERING HEIGHTS and THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL among others, you would never in a million years expect the artistic muse to descend as it did on this humble household. Isolated in northern England, living most of their lives in the parsonage, surrounded by an enormous graveyard (with the resultant effects on sanitation), and with little artistic influence at hand apart from the books they read. It’s an artistic miracle.

Yet that is precisely what happened. The real tragedy here is that son Branwell failed to live up to his prospects. There is an underlying theme of sexism at play here. Everyone expects the sole male child to succeed while the women are given nary a nod. And when they do begin to write and find success, they have to do so under male pen names. This sets up an amusing scene when two of the sisters travel to London to meet their publisher to prove to him that their books are written a) by different authors (he thought one person had written all their works) and b) that they were female. Of course this thinking was very much of the time and the injustice is not belaboured. It is just one aspect of an incredible true story that is unparalleled in the annals of literature.

Christopher Fry’s brilliant script is at times poetical and subtle, in keeping with the best of this great poet/playwright’s work. It is fitting for an author of his calibre to have undertaken the story of this unique and tragic family.

Brother Branwell is played by a very young Michael Kitchen, who will be particularly well-known in North America for his brilliant work on “Foyle’s War”. Kitchen’s career got off to a great start straight out of drama school when he was signed by a top agent who recognized his exceptional talent. He was 25 when this series was made and he gives a beautifully-nuanced performance.

Alfred Burke, known for his long and varied career–he died only last February at the age of 92–gives weight as the Bronte patriarch, Reverend Patrick Bronte. Apparently he had a lifetime habit of announcing when he was going to bed, which always ended with the gentle admonishment to his daughters not to stay up too late. This is gently humourous, and also shows the father’s undemonstrative affection for his girls.

Vickery Turner (once married to the great Warren Oates!) is particularly good as Charlotte Bronte, who outlived all her siblings. She seems the nearest to finding happiness in her short life. The Brontes were a tragic family, though it was not uncommon at this time for people to die young.

This is low-key but compelling drama, produced and performed with a sure hand. Lovers of Brontean literature will revel in the details of the lives of this family of artists. The dampness of life next to a wind-swept moor is well-created and lovingly brought to the screen.

Barbara Leigh-Hunt, a wonderful actor not nearly known well enough in North America (she’s a contemporary of, and every bit as good as, Judi Dench) holds the narrative together, playing the historically-true Bronte biographer Elizabeth Gaskell, narrating in the first four episodes and appearing in the last.

It is a well-known historical fact that the Bronte children all died young. The last scene shows father Bronte, sitting alone before the fire, wearing as always his high, preferred “Wellington”-style collar. He gives a short soliloquy on why he thinks life has unfolded as it has, why he has lost all his children. It is deeply poetic, beautiful, tragic and as haunting as the great words woven together by this trio of tragic sisters. This is the genius of Christopher Fry, finding the right words to end this history which asks more questions than it can answer.

THE BRONTES OF HAWORTH is fine, intelligent biographical drama.

 

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