The Barretts of Wimpole Street

The Barretts of Wimpole Street

It’s life you’re afraid of, and that shouldn’t be.

Going into it only moderately informed, the first thing I noticed about The Barretts of Wimpole Street were the opening titles; I’m not sure why the films of the time deemed it necessary to get as half-inventive with how they presented their title cards as they did, but the ‘photo album’ flipbook method seemed to be the most common of them, and it made another appearance here, all ornately laid out and embroidered in (I was sure) the same manner as the eponymous family themselves. Sure enough, when the film proper started, and I was introduced to each of the major characters, that air of stuffiness started to permeate into my eyes; an air that seemed all too common with films of this type and of this era. Thankfully, the rest of the film knew how to handle itself, so that this air did not become unbearable, of which I was most thankful. Along with that, the film itself actually did have a number of redeeming qualities, and by the end of it I was surprised at how pleasurable a watch it had been.

The ever-demure Norma Shearer is Elizabeth Barrett (affectionately known as Ba), the eldest of the Barrett children living in their estate along with their father, a domineering and ever-pervasive presence in every room of the house, who is played to perfection by Charles Laughton. The patriarch Barrett, in his typical authoritarian method, has forbidden any of his children to marry, even the boys, and Elizabeth, being the eldest as well as the most fragile, currently suffering an unknown illness which leaves her increasingly weakened, is the paragon of the Barrett father’s wishes. That is, until her poetry, frequently published, draws the attention of fellow poet Robert Browning, who seeks out the Barrett estate to meet the poetess herself, and the two are immediately taken with each other. Couple this with some of Ba’s siblings meeting potential lovers of their own, and the family (mostly Ba) must figure out a way to get what they really want out of life from underneath their father’s iron fist. First things first with this one is the cast, who are all particularly good; Laughton being of course a standout, though Shearer seemed a tad over-stuffy with some of her delivery, but I won’t fault her too much, especially considering how much the central relationship actually worked for me for once. It wasn’t scintillating with raw chemistry, but from the first scene Shearer and March’s characters have together, you just feel that they’re totally right for each other, which goes almost as far as sheer chemistry would’ve. Another note was the (once again) lack of musical score, a trait this film shares with so many of the era, but here, for what might be the first time in this second quest of mine, the lack of a soundtrack wasn’t a detriment; the drama of the film’s central method of conflict was enough to drive the actions forward and hold interest, and I went a good chunk of the film through before I realized that there had been no music, so props to the film for being a real film even and potentially with the lack of score. One extra thing to mention is how amazingly frank the film’s closing sections get with all the problems that drive the patriarch Barrett to his actions and what happens as a result of his divulging these revelations; I have to commend a film from the earliest days of the Hays Code for managing to get away with what it manages to, and for making the decision to have it in the film to begin with.

This was another film that I went into expecting another run-of-the-mill production that the Academy somehow saw fit to nominate for lack of anything more interesting, entertaining, or groundbreaking to look at. Again, for what might be the first time in this Best Picture odyssey of mine, I could not have been more wrong with my expectations; this was lovely, in just about every way a film of this type needed to be. Even the film’s weak points turned out to not be weak points in the end; some might not have been strengths, but the film knew how to handle its material deftly enough to avoid falling into the numerous pitfalls that betray other films of this era. I actually went back and re-looked up the director of this film to find that it was Sidney Franklin, who was also the director of Smilin’ Through, and this was so much the superior film to that one it actually surprised me a little. This apparently came in second at the Oscars that year for Best Picture, and I can see why; this hit all the right notes, both from a critical eye and from an appealing one as well. It might not be overtly entertaining, but you’ll get your money’s worth with this one.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10


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