“Masterpiece” doesn’t get more “Masterpiece”-y than Sunday’s movie, “To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters.” So those of you who hear an English accent and lapse into Monty Python, who hated “Downton Abbey” without ever seeing it, who watched “Clueless” to bone up for that senior class on Jane Austen’s “Emma,” who hear Laura Linney’s voice and reflexively raise your hand for bathroom permission, steer clear. This one-off “Masterpiece” is well-stocked with tea and melodrama, as it tells the story of one of literary history’s most important times and places: the Bronte household from 1845 to 1848.
During that period, sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, each in her 20s, pseudonymously published “Jane Eyre,” “Wuthering Heights,” and “Agnes Grey,” respectively. There’s so much rich material bound up in that remarkable fact, and writer-director Sally Wainwright, the creator of “Last Tango in Halifax” and “Happy Valley,” often succeeds in doing justice to it all. Wainwright gives us three women reunited in their small hometown village who know the only way to print is to mask themselves as men — as Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily), and Acton (Anne) Bell — while at the same time living in the domestic grip of a brother, wannabe poet and painter Branwell, who’s lost in an ugly spiral of addiction, bruised ego, and love gone wrong.
Interestingly, Wainwright doesn’t bother too much about the actual writing of the novels, or of the sisters’ fictional capacities. She doesn’t strain to dissect their imaginations by linking their books directly to their lives. At one point, Emily talks about a story she’s heard and become fascinated by, one that we can see resembles “Wuthering Heights.” And we know that Anne (Charlie Murphy) is taking mental notes on Branwell, whose long, slow decline recalls the one she portrayed in her powerful “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” whose heroine has fled an abusive, addicted, and doomed husband. We see them writing at moments, and we are clearly in the home of an exceptional trio of literary siblings — a rarity, along with Henry, Alice, and William James. In recurring glimpses of the siblings as children, with surreal imagery that subtly recurs in the present tense of the movie, we see how passionate they were in inventing fantasy worlds together.
But the guts of “To Walk Invisible” are about the sisters’ claustrophobic daily lives, their occasional battles — such as when Emily (Chloe Pirrie) learns that Charlotte (Finn Atkins) has read her hidden manuscript — and their suppressed resentment at having to hide their gender in order to succeed. They watch in sorrow and anger as Branwell spits in the face of all his advantages as a man — and as their father, the Rev. Patrick Bronte (Jonathan Pryce), defends and supports him nonetheless. Well-played by Adam Nagaitis, Branwell is an unstoppable force of torment, drama, and financial desperation in the family. At a certain point, though, his self-destruction mobilizes the sisters into pursuing publication, in order to bring in money.
Much as I liked “To Walk Invisible,” I did find a few awkward pieces of exposition, about the times and the Bronte family history, stuffed into the dialogue — a problem that often afflicts historical pieces. (In the four nights of “When We Rise,” ABC’s recent look back at the gay rights movement, I’m not sure there was a single line spoken that wasn’t somehow meant to give us context.) Also, despite the spare look of the movie, there are a few moments of melodramatic excess whose volume could have been turned down a notch or two. Add to that a scene at the tail-end of the movie that is unforgivable as it breaks the story’s spell.
But there’s so much more to like here, not least of all the five strong Bronte performances, tight camera work that abets their intimacy, and writing and direction that refuse to romanticize these people and their circumstances. Wainwright never pushes us to interpret the Brontes’ story as one of nascent feminism; more valuably, she delivers the bleak tale with all its tragedy and redemption and lets us find the meaning on our own.
TO WALK INVISIBLE: THE BRONTE SISTERS
Starring Charlie Murphy, Chloe Pirrie, Finn Atkins, Jonathan Pryce, Adam Nagaitis
On “Masterpiece,” WGBH 2, Sunday at 9 p.m.