Miniseries Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996)
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a three-part miniseries made by the BBC and runs just under three hours. The series stars Tara Fitzgerald, Toby Stephens, Rupert Graves, and James Purefoy. That’s a lot of attractive leading males in one series. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is an adaptation of Anne Brontë’s second and final novel of the same name. A novel that is often considered one of the earliest feminist novels. It’s grittier, darker, more socially realistic, examining the plight of married women and domestic abuse in genteel Victorian society.
The Woman in Black
The story opens with a woman stealing away with a young child in the wee hours of the morning. She then arrives at a rundown, isolated house of the moors, dressed in black, introducing herself as the widow, Mrs. Helen Graham (Fitzgerald), and her son Arthur. Although she very much wants to keep to herself, she finds herself forced into interacting with the small, local society. She is, after all, the mysterious newcomer, and curious neighbors want their looks.
Helen remains elusive, aloof, abrupt, even in social settings. She speaks her mind forcefully on occasion, ruffling more than a few feathers. She is obviously tired of society and small talk and all of it. Still, one local farmer, Mr. Gilbert Markham (Stephens), finds her very alluring. He is persistent, befriends her son, and eventually befriends her. He can sense something nagging at her, but she always avoids answering and revealing truths.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Graham rents her home from Mr. Lawrence (Purefoy), and that relationship gets local tongues wagging. Folk say he’s been seen at her home late at night, that her son looks too much like him to be a coincidence. And wagging tongues turn to ostracization. Mr. Markham tries to defend her, but his own jealousy gets the better of him.
After the Happily Ever After – SPOILERS
You can’t really summarize this tale without a spoiler or two. I apologize. But Helen does finally reveal the truth to Gilbert. She is no widow. She’s married still – to a debased lecher. And the whole cautionary backstory is revealed about the innocent girl wooed by the silver-tongued flattery and witty repartee of the handsome rake, Arthur Huntington (Graves). A headstrong Helen marries against her family’s reservations and it all goes downhill from there. She figured he just needed a good woman to keep him on the straight and narrow, that with her gentle prodding he would be redeemed. But no.
Helen realizes quite quickly her mistake, but it is too late. She now belongs to him, to honor and obey, his property, his wife. But she refuses to be docile, silent, accepting of his ungodly ways. Oh, there are mind games aplenty going on in this marriage. It’s an examination of abuse, emotional, mental and physical abuse. And how Helen tries to survive, navigate, endure, and eventually escape and forgive.
I don’t want to spoil everything, so I’ll leave it at that.
A Thought-Provoking Tale to Sink Your Teeth Into
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a drama that never goes into melodrama. And it never completely disregards romance either. Both Gilbert and Arthur are charming and incorrigible in their ways, with some very romantic lines and lies. Tara Fitzgerald’s Helen is a stoic woman, complicated, morally upright, dutiful. Helen is faithful and virtuous. Indeed, it is her faith that sustains her, her personal relationship to God that informs her actions.
And you’re left with all sorts of percolating thoughts about morality and virtue and the rights of the oppressed. About the role of women and the role of men and the rule of law and the confines of society. Thoughts about love and marriage and what it takes to keep that happily ever after. Yeah, it’s a meaty period piece here.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a good watch. It’s beautifully filmed, the acting is well-done, and the story lingers, challenging, prompting. Yeah, it’s thought-provoking stuff. Give it a watch.
Content Note: It’s probably about a PG-13 rating. There are a couple of scenes of violence against a woman, also of a sexual nature, but there is nothing graphically depicted, no skin. It’s implied and understood, as opposed to explicitly shown.
Where to Watch: DVD.
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Photo Credit: BBC.
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