Moor enigma variations

15th November 1996 at 00:00
Lovers of period drama won't be disappointed by the BBC's latest adaptation, says Aleks Sierz. THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL BBC1 November 17-December 19.00pm-9.55pm Repeated BBC2 November 23-December 7

While film adaptations of major classics - such as Jane Austen's Emma, or Charlotte Bront 's Jane Eyre - can often provoke howls of disappointment, screen versions of minor classics are more usually greeted with a sigh of relief. After all, they're a quick and easy way of finding out about a book you've never had the time (or the inclination) to read.

First published in 1848, Anne Bront 's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall shocked Victorian readers with its story of Helen Graham, a mystery woman who, along with her five-year-old son, rents a decayed country mansion and sets local tongues wagging with speculations about her enigmatic past.

It slowly emerges that this independent-minded paragon, who paints landscapes for a living, is fleeing from a disastrous marriage. Her adored husband, Andrew Huntingdon, turns out to be a vicious rake, openly preferring the dubious joys of the bottle and illicit affairs to the comforts of hearth and home.

The most striking thing about the BBC version - adapted by David Nokes and Janet Barron - is its moody good looks, all shadowy interiors and bleak and barren moorlands. Aptly enough, the most memorable scene, filmed in bright sunshine, is the last one.

Despite its emphasis on the novel's grey and gritty look, this adaptation will not disappoint lovers of the period detail and symbolic locations typical of BBC costume drama. But the overall feel of the piece is quite different from the colourful social comedy of Middlemarch or the sunny optimism of Pride and Prejudice. Instead, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is as dark and passionate as any Bront story could wish to be.

It also adds meaning to the original text. Where the novel merely reports on Huntingdon's depravity, the film - directed with loads of dizzying camera work by Mike Barker - strengthens the book's argument by actually showing Huntingdon's drunken bellowing, his horrible attempts to corrupt his tiny son and his violence.

The feminist sympathies of the book and its portrayal of male double standards are enhanced not only by showing Huntingdon's infidelity or Helen in childbirth, but also by focusing on scenes which emphasise her choices. None, however, solicit our sympathy quite as much as the film's ending, which boldly rewrites the novel from Helen's perspective.

While in the book it is Gilbert Markham - a yeoman farmer who falls in love with Helen - who suffers because he thinks she prefers another, in the film it is Helen who agonises, thinking she's lost her Gilbert. Yet though it betrays the letter of the novel, the film's ending stays true to the spirit of Bront 's story.

And if Tara Fitzgerald as Helen succeeds in turning the determined seriousness of the novel's heroine into a much plainer, more modern spirit, what's missing is the character's charisma.

Instead of the proud, lonely and estranged soul that Bront had in mind, we get a vulnerable figure, uncomfortably prone to looking like a sourpuss.

By contrast, Rupert Graves's Huntingdon is wonderfully dastardly, dripping insincerity from every pore and happy to slobber when drunk and debauched. And Toby Stephens's Markham gives a good impression of ardent Yorkshire manhood, all fervour and dashing good looks.

With its vivid flashbacks mimicking the way the novel was written - Markham and Helen taking turns to act as narrators - the only ingredient that's missing is Anne Bront 's mix of slangy straight-talking and deeply-felt piety. For this, you have to listen to the BBC audio cassette, read by Joseph O'Connor and Miranda Pleasence, which gives a good taste of Bront 's bold wit and tragic irony.

The main problem is that Miranda Pleasence's Helen is even less convincing than Tara Fitzgerald's, her perky piety lacking the maturity and determination of Bront 's heroine.

Although her voice is familiar enough with heavy irony, it's a complete stranger to the moral eloquence and strong-mindedness of the original.

Anne Bront 's work may never achieve the iconic status of her elder sisters' masterpieces, but The Tenant of Wildfell Hall remains a serious and satisfying book, rescued from undeserved obscurity by the BBC, whose film version conveys the flavour of the original and its feminist message.

The audio cassette (running time: 3 hours) of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is available for Pounds 7.99 and the video for Pounds 12.99 from good book stores; a special PenguinBBC edition of the book costs Pounds 4.99

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