BBC Film Production: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996)

Having richly enjoyed Anne Brontë's moving novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I went in search of a film version. I didn't have to look far: Amazon offered streaming access to a three-part, nearly three-hour BBC production released in 1996.

I was intrigued to see how the filmmakers had handled the challenge of recreating a story that was told entirely through the text of letters and a diary. Sensibly, they simply discarded the notion of letters and let actions speak for themselves.

Beginning with a bang. Instead of starting with a letter from "gentleman farmer" Gilbert Markham to his friend Halford, as the book does, the film blasts to life with a terrified Helen fleeing, along with her son, from her husband's estate (and his callous self). This audience-grabbing scene of a future escape is echoed in the 2011 Jane Eyre film, which starts with Jane making a similar getaway from Thornfield.

Accurately, Gilbert and Helen meet when he rescues young Arthur, who is caught in a tree. In the film, that is Gilbert's first inkling of her existence, while in the book, he had already heard of the Hall's mysterious tenant and seen her in church. That lack of context changes the dynamics of their meeting, as he seemed to stumble on them by chance instead of having his curiosity about her lead him to the Hall.

From there, events proceed largely as Anne wrote them (with some notable exceptions, cited below). The mysterious Mrs. Graham is the talk of gossips and the focus of the smitten Gilbert. As he draws close to her, she finally feels forced to entrust him with the diary that exposes her secrets. We are then conveyed to a world where her younger self made a bold romantic choice which she soon came to regret.

A capable cast. Tara Fitzgerald is a believable Helen: subdued and private, but warm when her guard drops, and passionate when driven to it. Surprisingly, she is shown with straight reddish hair, while Gilbert had described it in the book as "raven black, and disposed in long glossy ringlets ...." This may seem insignificant, but it would affect the way that era's society would view her, as evidenced by the "curly hair" scene in Jane Eyre. (Before and during her wedding, and occasionally later while with her husband, the film's Helen did indeed have ringlets.)

I was glad to see Toby Stephens skillfully portray Gilbert. As noted in my review, I didn't care much for his performance as Rochester in the 2006 Jane Eyre film. He seemed far better suited to be a striving, earnest, occasionally tempestuous young man in Tenant than Jane's darkly brooding "master" ten years later.

Meanwhile, Rupert Graves is appropriately appalling as Helen's husband, Mr. Huntingdon. So painful was it to watch this character that I could barely bring myself to re-view any of the second installment, which consists mainly of him engaging in wanton cruelty and debauchery.

The supporting actors are consistently compelling. The strongest impression is made by Kenneth Cranham as Reverend Millward. Despite their father being a minister, the Brontë sisters depicted some clergy members as more sinners than saints. As portrayed here, Rev. Millward's harsh treatment of individuals and hectoring of his congregation make him a fitting brother-in-the-cloth to Jane Eyre's Rev. Brocklehurst.

Strange changes. With regard to changes from the book, most of them mattered little. I have only three real points of contention:

  1. Instead of finding out Helen's relationship to Lawrence through her diary, Gilbert discovers it while assaulting him near the Hall. Helen rushes out and accosts Gilbert with "Get off! I tried to tell you — he's my brother!" That may have worked better on film than a diary entry would have, but it felt like a crude device.
  2. Gilbert visits Grassdale, the estate where Helen has returned to tend to her ill husband. He blurts out his feelings to her, and as he leaves, he trades contemptuous glances with Mr. Huntingdon. Maybe that was meant as a substitute for Gilbert's trip to Helen's purported wedding (see next paragraph), but it introduced an awkward three-way tension that the book lacked.
  3. The film ends shortly after a scene that one of the two protagonists thinks is the other's wedding. But the film switches their places from the book, where a false rumor sends Gilbert on a journey that leads to the happy denouement. Instead, as Helen is returning from Grassdale after Huntingdon's death, she spies what appears to be Gilbert marrying his familiar companion Eliza Millward. Why the switch? Perhaps to shorten the tale, and perhaps to avoid a second long trip for Gilbert. But we lose his urgency in setting out after Helen.

All in all, this film is quite worthy of watching, conveying the spirit of Anne's powerful story. Fine acting and lovely camerawork (apart from a surfeit of dizzying spinning shots) make the less salutary changes forgivable.





  • Uniformly strong performances by an outstanding cast 
  • Generally engrossing camerawork and editing 


  • Several substantial changes to the plot, along with some unnecessary minor ones