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Tenant of Wildfell Hall, The
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by Dr. Isaksson

"Anne Bronte's controversial novel is brought to vivid life"
5 stars

In 1849 Anne Bronte, the least acclaimed author of the world renowned Bronte sisters, penned a novel that centered on a young, tortured wife and her adulterous, abusive and hateful husband. The novel was called "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" and the 28 year old daughter of a minister never expected the venomous rebuttal which the novel received from critics all over Britain. The slightly self-righteous people of the Victorian Era (who were afraid to even show an ankle in public for fear of causing a scandal) attacked her character and her novel, claiming it was too coarse and shocking, even for masculine readers. It was, to Anne, merely a true account of what she had seen in her 6 years as Governess for a very wealthy and very immoral family. Anne felt it was her duty to tell the world of what she had learned about the dark sides of human nature. Greed, hate, spite, jealousy, untruthfulness and self destruction were her unfortunate lessons and she wanted to make certain that readers everywhere (especially the female reading public) saw a glimpse of the truth behind the well hidden vices of those who claimed to be pious and good.

In the days when women were given few opportunities to support themselves, where the choice of either a school teacher, a factory worker or if she was lucky enough, a wife were all that was open to them, Anne Bronte took the only other occupation available for a young woman who had been well schooled. And that was of a Governess for a prominent family. From this she conceived and wrote the amazing and controversial The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and after several film versions of Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Emily's Wuthering Heights finally in 1996, the BBC took on the novel and for the first time in cinema history made it into a feature film. And they nailed the son-of-a-bitch on their first try.

As everyone is well aware of every time a classic novel is taken to film the importance of accurately portraying what the author intended and capturing the essence of the work is something not many directors can seem to accomplish. (Look at Kubrick's The Shining as an example.) The dilemma to follow the author's vision (and not your own) is only intensified when the novel is by one of the most well known and beloved trio of writing sisters Great Britain has ever produced. The Bronte Sisters.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tells the story of a woman who has just arrived in a small Yorkshire town in the 1820s. Except for a servant and her young son she is alone and is dressed in widow's clothing. Her name is Helen Graham (played by Tara Fitzgerald) and she resides in quiet seclusion in an old dilapidated house called 'Wildfell Hall', situated two miles from her nearest neighbor. However, in a town where the neighbors, regardless of how far away, are a nosey bunch and they want to know more about this woman. Helen is soon enough cornered at church and asked to attend a party held by a Mrs. Markham who is also a widow and who has two sons and a daughter Gilbert, Fergus and Rose. Helen reluctantly agrees but while she is there she unwillingly reveals herself to be a woman of a secretive and dark nature. The party present find her most unpleasant and unorthodox in her beliefs. She obstains from alcohol and in an age where it was encouraged that young boys learn to drink as a means of gaining their manhood, Helen has refused her young son Arthur the common act of drinking. Even the town's Vicar Mr. Millward finds Helen's fierce avoidance of all thing natural to them a strange and suspicious thing. And he takes it upon himself to discover just what it is she is hiding in her past. What is she hiding and why is she so untrusting? No one can seem to let this question alone and the longer she stays the more the people of the town begin to talk.

Rumors spread of Helen being a woman of a degenerate nature and she is soon ostracized by the people of the town. All except for one Gilbert Markham. He is a friendly and ambitious young farmer who takes it upon his own conscience to not listen to the others and their slanderous talk. Gilbert likes Helen and her son. Despite Helen's avoidance, they soon befriend each other. However, when the townsfolk learn of this friendship they wrongfully conclude that Mrs. Helen Graham must be a whore and that the two are engaging in secret trysts. This only mounts the tensions for Helen. She is no longer able to withhold her past from Gilbert and to clear her name from the evil gossip, Helen finally agrees to reveal all to him by giving him her diary which relates her past in full and how that terrible past has led to her present circumstances. What is revealed are the details of her disastrous marriage to a Mr. Arthur Huntington, a wealthy, cruel and self destructive man.

It is inside these diary entries that Gilbert (as well as the viewer) sees the story unfold of young, naive woman who becomes swept away by the idea of attaining love and marriage. Regardless of the warnings from her family she marries Arthur and is subjected to some of the most disturbing, cruel and intimately humiliating moments anyone could ever imagine to suffer through. Although Helen is abused by Arthur, who struggles fruitlessly with alcoholism, adulterous actions and self loathing in a world where, to him, every wrong action meant another step toward damnation, she is determined to hold on to her husband and hold on to the hopes that all is not lost. However, Arthur's inability to be faithful and strong are what continually drive him mad and unable to stand it alone and he makes certain that he take Helen and thier son down with him.

The film then unfolds into a struggle between virtue and vice and the hardships a marriage can suffer through the faithless acts of a spouse who cannot learn otherwise. However, the film isn't destined to show merely a couple in endless turmoil. It gives us the ramifications of what harm can be done to the child who is in the center of it all. Helen knows that her son will become damaged by this kind of exposure and so she finally decides to escape her husband, taking her child with her. Helen's escape can be considered a rare occurrence in England early in the 19th Century but not only because it was quite uncommon but because it was completely illegal. Wives were not encouraged to leave their husbands regardless of their problems and if they did they could not take the children with them. If women did choose to leave their husbands they faced a great deal of trouble if they were found. So this action was not only brave but very dangerous. It was for Helen a chance she was willing to take. So what comes of Helen and her son you ask? See The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and find out.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall stands apart from the other adaptations of Bronte novels to film. Why? Because it remains true to Anne's original novel. The words uttered by the cast are very close to those of her book and this is an admirable thing because only one other film version of a Bronte novel has been this accurate and particular in following their works and this was a BBC version of Jane Eyre produced in 1983. But despite great performances that film had weak production and an unimpressive lighting and set design. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is by far the most atmospheric attempt made by any filmmaker who has tried to capture the essence of what the Bronte's conveyed in their brilliant novels. It is the one film adaptation that isn't afraid to be as gritty and harsh as the rocky moors that the novel was conceived among.

The performance by Tara Fitzgerald as Helen is absolutely brilliant and I'm sure Anne Bronte would have approved of her work in the film. Fitzgerald refused to wear any makeup whatsoever because she wanted it to look as authentic as possible and it does. There are no people with luminous skin and elaborate hairstyles. (This is definately not a frilly, go find a husband, Jane Austen type production.) This film is far more beleivable considering the time and area for which it takes place. Tara Fitzgerald plays her Helen as one who is stoic and stubborn, all the while knowing that goodness, faith and truth will be her guide and her savior through the dimmest days. Fitzgerald never wavers for a second. She IS Helen from the first frame to the last and her determination in staying true to what was written is very admirable. The other two leads in the film are equally as awesome, that of her farmer and 'good guy' friend Gilbert Markham played by Toby Stephens and the tormented and brutal Arthur Huntington played by the 'great at being morose' Rupert Graves. His name says it all and he is completely believable as the husband who has succumbed to adultery and alcohol. Graves plays Arthur with a tense, always thinking, always full of unrest, state of mind. The kind which Anne Bronte was trying to evoke. He pulls this off to perfection every second his face on the screen. No one could have been better in this role. Even Arthur Jr. played by Jackson Leach is brilliant as the impressionable but otherwise happy child who is trying to make sense of all that has transpired around him. Leach never hams it up or gets overtly emotional for the 'big scenes'. He is just completely natural with his portrayal and registers very well as the child. The Direction by Mike Barker is remarkable. He is equipped with great camera methods that serve to enhance the film's aura. In moments of fear his camera spins round like a top out of control. When there are moments of isolation, Barker's camera is far and distant as though he wants us to see Helen's seclusion in all it's wide open sadness. When there are moments of great anger the camera pans back and hovers behind solitary objects, just watching in silence. There is a difficult task for this film when it has to follow the novel's flashbacks to when Helen was first married and trials she underwent. These scenes are painstakingly placed within the present day storyline. Just like the book, they are a bit shakey to follow at times but in the end it all succeeds.

The film's score is a swirling mix of beautiful 'bulgarian voices' type female vocals and music that harkers back to old english folk. The music enhances the film even more and is mesmerising. I wish a soundtrack for this film was available.
And of course last but not least are the beautiful, if a bit stark, Yorkshire landscape. It hovers around with a mist of hazy thought and emotion. It darkens, it lightens and it swirls with color. It is gritty and muddy, it is rocky and uncomfortable but it was the place the Bronte sisters loved so much. And The Tenant of Wildfell Hall gives us a look at their landscape as well as a fictional story that lies among it's moors. But this work of fiction contains a great moral lesson for people of any time, at any age and from any place.

As it is with the novel, the film "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" is a striking and emotionally charged work of art. I was moved a great deal and I respect the attenton to detail and ambiance the creators took to have this film reach excellence. ***** 5 Stars

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originally posted: 07/21/03 12:56:20
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5/21/04 Lizzie Gilbert is fit! 4 stars
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Directed by
  Mike Barker

Written by
  David Nokes

  Tara Fitzgerald
  Cathy Murphy
  Jackson Leach
  Sarah Badel
  Rupert Graves
  Toby Stephens

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