I have a B.A. in literature (I promise this is relevant), so I’ve studied more than my share of the classics. When it comes to poetry, I’m not sure that Robert Browning would land anywhere near my list of favorites. So much of his work is so obtuse; it almost always left (and still leaves) me confused. I much preferred his wife’s work. Elizabeth Barrett’s work was simple without being simplistic. It’s understandable and powerful because it is so understandable. So it came as something of a happy moment for me when, on their first meeting in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Robert Browning (Fredric March) laments that almost everyone who reads his poetry finds it impenetrable. Damn right.
The Barretts of Wimpole Street is a sort of biopic but is more of a drama than anything else. Much of the film seems based at least vaguely on reality, although the darker moments that come near the end may not have been. I have no way to tell without doing more than the cursory research I’ve done. It’s an interesting extrapolation from what I could find about Elizabeth Barrett and her life before meeting Browning and their subsequent marriage.
Elizabeth (Norma Shearer) is sickly and confined to her room, which leaves her out of the family life. That may not be such a terrible thing as it turns out. First, and of primary importance to the world at large, this confinement unleashed Browning’s poetic spirit, causing a great deal of her early productivity as a poet. Second, and of primary importance in terms of the story, this keeps her out of the reach of her tyrannical father Edward Moulton-Barrett (Charles Laughton).
At first, Edward Moulton-Barrett comes off as someone who is stern but has the best interests of his daughter at heart. As we progress, though, we learn that he is a man who takes pride in controlling the lives of Elizabeth, her sisters, and her many brothers as firmly as possible. He is an unpleasant man at best—demanding, cruel, unyielding, and vicious. For Elizabeth, this means being forced into unpleasant treatments and being kept away from life in general. For her and the others, this also means a complete ban on romantic attachments and marriage, something that is only explained at the end of the film.
Romance blooms anyway. For younger sister Henrietta (Maureen O’Sullivan), this romance comes in the form of a friend of her brothers, Captain Surtees Cook (Ralph Forbes). For Elizabeth, love manifests in the form of poet Robert Browning, who visits her, wanting to meet the person responsible for her verse. While he professes that he has fallen in love with her writing, she demurs, believing herself to be at death’s door.
Ah, but this is not what fate has in store for us. No, Elizabeth instead returns slowly to health, and while we’re not privy to her complete recovery, there is some implication that she is becoming healthier in no small part because of Browning’s visits. Eventually, she is proclaimed strong enough to travel to Italy where the weather and climate may be more suitable to her recovery. Her father puts a stop to this, however, preferring instead to keep a tight rein on her. It is here that we begin to learn of his obsession with Elizabeth, his oldest daughter. Elizabeth despairs of getting out from under his thumb and of marrying Robert. Meanwhile, Henrietta is in the same situation with Surtees, and is even forced to swear an oath on the Bible that she will no longer see the man she wishes to marry.
I won’t reveal where we get creepy at the end of the film. I’ll only say that as we head for the finish, with Elizabeth deciding whether or not she should flee her family and run off to Italy with Robert or stay, things get quite disturbing. It’s particularly interesting for a film from 1934.
I didn’t dislike this film, but I come a long way from actually liking it. One of the first problems is that almost the entire film takes place in Elizabeth’s room. There are moments, even whole scenes outside of this spot (and I’m likely overselling this), but it feels like virtually all of the story takes place within the same four walls. Norma Shearer gives a solid performance in no small part because she is bedridden for most of the film and is thus limited to acting with her face and voice. The one-room issue because a problem simply because of how bland it makes the film.
And speaking of bland, Robert Browning comes off as a high-minded cipher here. He’s not given nearly enough to do but sport a couple of platitudes and look dashing. He’s a better actor than that and a role with a little meat on it would’ve been nice.
So, The Barretts of Wimpole Street is hardly a bad film. It is, though, kind of a dull one.
Why to watch The Barretts of Wimpole Street: It’s far darker than you’d guess.
Why not to watch: Most of it happens in one room.