Miniseries review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996), directed by Mike Barker
They all look so handsome on the picture, almost cheerful. How misleading! There haven’t been many adaptations of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall over the years, and this, the latest one, dates back to 1996 and stars Tara Fitzgerald, Rupert Graves and Toby Stephens. Both Fitzgerald and Stephens would of course come back to the Brontës ten years later, in Jane Eyre (2006), where they did not share any scenes (they played Mrs Reed and Mr Rochester).
In this dark and gloomy story, we’re not treated to a rose-tinted view of romance, but rather it’s darker side. It’s not amusing, it’s not cute – it’s brutal and makes no excuses for being so.
Nestled amongst the vast Yorkshire moors is a dreary old place called Wildfell Hall, and it sees a mysterious new tenant, a “Mrs Graham” or Helen (Tara Fitzgerald), who have come there with her young son. She doesn’t reveal much about herself, and pays her way through selling her paintings. She meets the handsome and kind Gilbert Markham (Toby Stephens), and falls in love with him. After some misunderstandings, she finally tells him her story, and we find out who she really is and how she got there:
Young and new to society in London, Helen meets the handsome Arthur Huntingdon (Rupert Graves) – a true “Regency Rake” (even though they’re not actually in the Regency period, but I haven’t heard of any “Victorian Rakes”). He charms her off her feet and proposes marriage. At first, the young Mrs Huntingdon is happy, but it’s not long before her husband’s true colours start showing through. He abandons his pregnant wife in order to enjoy himself in London … and eventually, he comes back – his bad sides have deteriorated and he’s now a full-blown alcoholic and womaniser with a foul temper and a tendency to violence. Eventually, Helen has had enough and decides to leave.
The miniseries is in three parts, just under an hour each. Part one is Helen and Arthur Jr’s introduction to Wildfell Hall, with some flashbacks to the previous life. They struggle with the prejudices of a small village, who can’t quite accept the newcomer, as what’s a single lady doing there? Part two mainly consists of Helen’s backstory with Huntingdon. Part three reunites both Huntingdon and Helen (the former being not far from death due to his debaucheries), as well as Helen and Gilbert Markham, who now knows all of her past, and loves her regardless.
Anne Brontë did not gloss over the negative parts of society, and some might say that’s why she’s less known than her two sisters; Kate Beaton has a funny illustration of this in her historical webcomic Hark, a vagrant: “Dudewatchin’ with the Brontës”. So true, so true. Huntingdon isn’t the tortured soul of Rochester, who’s a bit rough around the edges but has a heart of gold and who loves his dear Janet with a passion that echoes through the ages. He’s more like Heathcliff, but without Heathcliff’s undying love for his Cathy. Huntingdon is just a cruel and callous bastard. You’ll wish he gets drunk and has a hunting accident so he’s gone once and for all.
The acting is fabulous. Tara Fitzgerald is subdued, restrained, but there is fire burning beneath that demure exterior. Similar, in a way, to her role as the vicar’s wife in Sirens, actually, although that’s a whole different story altogether! Rupert Graves is a handsome man and in a cravat, but that still can’t make me forget the fact that he makes me hate his character so much that I’d want nothing to do with him. Toby Stephens … Gilbert Markham is a lovely man, kind to both children and animals. Anne uses the “kind to animals = great guy” and “cruel to animals = bad guy” thing in Agnes Grey as well, and I can see her point. (A guy who isn’t kind to animals can bugger the hell off, because chances are he’s not going to be kind to you either.) Anyway, Toby Stephens is as swoonworthy as ever, and aside from that, he puts on a great performance. I’d probably rank Rochester higher, as performances go, because there’s so much more to Rochester on screen than there is Markham, but what we do see will melt your heart.
I’ve only just started reading the book, so it will be interesting to see how it compares with this adaptation. While the story is awful – in terms of what happens to the characters, not the storytelling or characterisation – it does end with a promise of a happy ending. And that doesn’t perhaps outweigh all the gloom, but at least it makes it worthwhile to endure. I’m not one for depressing stories, and this is one of those “I’d rather be watching something else than this nasty excuse for a man”, I suppose I still stick to it because at least Helen decides to do something about the situation and not just sit there and hope things will improve when you know they never will. She has some fighting spirit, and I like that. So while much I prefer the lighter and rosier tone of Agnes Grey, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is still a magnificent piece of storytelling. Anne Brontë, I salute you!