Review

  • Warning: Spoilers
    I imagine Victorian literature slowly sinking into the mire of the increasingly distant past, pulled down by the weight of its under-skirts. Along comes television: at its best, it has a redemptive power, and with dramatisations like those the BBC produce so finely, Victorian literature gets a new stab at life. The religious themes, the moral overtones, may be increasingly ill at ease in a world no longer easily shocked, and acquainted with cohabitation, affairs and domestic violence. But those old, well-told stories have enduring power, and this is one's a hidden gem.

    It's hard to gauge today just how forceful, feminist and extraordinary Ann Bronte's masterpiece, "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall", actually was. Emerging from the primeval slime of restrictive corsets – bodily, mental, societal – her heroine, Helen Huntingdon, escapes a miserable marriage, flees brutality and alcoholism, braves not only her abusive husband's fury, but society's pinched intolerance and malicious gossip, to wreak change in her life. She pays a price; but retains her self-respect; she falls in love along the way; she emerges battered but victorious, and strong. I just love watching women like these on screen.

    The actors are superb – the best Brits have to offer. The love story is beautifully handled, with real passion and feeling by well-matched actors. Tara Fitzgerald inhabits every aspect of the complicated heroine, and as has been said here by other reviewers, no less sharply defined and beautiful a face could survive that petrifying hairstyle. Toby Stephens, striking sparks off her, contributes just the right combination of headstrong, handsome youth and passionate, yearning vulnerability. Rupert Graves (one of my favourite British actors ever) enjoys himself as the charismatic villain (so much so that you're almost with him at the end. No one's perfect). The supporting cast ably create a world into which you sink without feeling that coarse compromises have been made to modern tastes, and without having felt preached to. Another BBC classic, highly recommended: this is how romantic literature should be dramatised.