Most families would be content with one major success story, but for the Brontës success was a common occurrence in the household. The 1973 miniseries chronicles the lives of the Brontë children from pre-adolescence to their untimely deaths. Spanning five, 50-minute episodes, "The Brontës of Haworth" takes a route to storytelling that bypasses biopic genre conventions, instead taking the radical approach of treating human beings like, brace yourself, human beings. Narrated by Elizabeth Gaskell (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), friend to the family and fellow author ("Cranford" and "North and South" to name a few), "The Brontës of Haworth" is a dense, dialogue rich drama based on Gaskell's non-fiction book "The Life of Charlotte Brontë," that sheds a bright light on character many know as literary anecdotes or paltry author bios from book jackets.
Those hoping for a light dramatization of historical fact will be sorely disappointed, as "The Brontës of Haworth" spends as much time if not more studying the family dynamic as it does the actual literary creations of Patrick Brontës (Alfred Burke) offspring. As the first episode closes, the viewer has a good idea of where the creative spark came from in all the children as well as tragic events (the death of 12-year old Mary Brontë) that likely shaped the tone of a few works to follow in later years. From episode two to five though, the focus is on the older Brontës: Charlotte (Vickery Turner), author of most notably "Jane Eyre"), Anne (Ann Penfold), author of "Agnes Grey" and "The Tenant of Wildfelld Hall"), Emily (Rosemary McHale), author of "Wuthering Heights", and Branwell (a very young Michael Kitchen), artist and poet.
To call it surprising would be an understatement, but the focus on Branwell Brontë is one of the most welcome surprises in all of the series and a perfect summarized statement of why the series is much more than contrived isolated events going on to (truthfully or not) influence the later writings of the Brontë sisters themselves. I honestly had no knowledge of Branwell's life apart from the fact he did once exist. With Michael Kitchen in what ends up being a pivotal role, "The Brontës of Haworth" takes viewers on a harrowing tragic ride that for fans of the sister's at large, does provide subtle hints at future inspiration. That's not to say the series doesn't focus on the writings, it just takes longer than most might expect to get there, and what they do cover is mostly known information. No single well-known element is dwelt on to the point where it robs viewers of the more intimate aspects of the Brontë family dynamic, a key reason why the series is both captivating and exhausting
"The Brontës of Haworth" is a worthwhile viewing experience, but demands close attention. Strong production design allow one to easily get lost in the period setting, while across the board sold performances make each character feel alive and unique; there is no doubt I will re-read at least "Wuthering Heights" in the future and having seen the iconic novel's author's life dramatized before my eyes will add an additional layer to examine. In the end, "The Brontës of Haworth" reveal that the real Brontë family was as every bit complex and fascinating as the lives created within the pages of Anne, Emily and Charlotte's work.
The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer is quite remarkable for a nearly 40-year old British television series. While the program retains its inherent "transferred from video" look and colors are a bit on the brown side, it's fairly clean looking transfer with minimal compression artifact issues and consistent, average detail.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 audio has a hollow quality to it, capturing the acoustics of the soundstage rather than a cramped period house, but dialogue is clear and easily discernable, while musical score has a bit of a warble, it's a non-issue as the program is 99% dialogue driven. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included.
The lone extra resides on disc two and is a small text based biography on the Brontë home itself with a few repeated facts about the family.
While "The Brontës of Haworth" was far more emotionally draining than I expected, its sharp dialogue and consistent performances make it a delight to experience for fans of the Brontës or the uninitiated. One need not know a single detail of "Jane Eyre" or "Wuthering Heights" to appreciate this carefully crafted study of a brilliant family in a complex time. Highly Recommended.