Incredibly beautiful production–with entirely authentic sets for both the interiors and the street scenes. Norma Shearer makes a fine, fragile Elizabeth Barrett, and Frederic March a fairly dashing Robert Browning. Charles Laughton nearly makes The Barretts of Wimpole Street a horror movie; his portrayal of the family patriarch is frightening for its bullying, pomposity, and underlying sexual obsessiveness. That her father acts the victim as part of his passive/aggressive behavior shows how completely he has ensnared Elizabeth in his trap.
It seems in the Barrett household only the dog is its own master. Mr. Barrett literally wants Elizabeth to think that she’s disabled so that he can continue controlling her. He burdens the whole family with his Puritanical streak–an early scene of Henrietta (Maureen O’Sullivan) having fun dancing around the room is brought to an abrupt standstill by dad’s mere appearance. What’s laughable is the elaborate ruse that Henrietta has to concoct to meet her admirer Capt. Surtees (Ralph Forbes). The cat is really out of the bag when Elizabeth lets on to Browning that her father is “devoted” to her. He correctly surmises that there’s something wrong with that. So, he plays his best card and proposes…realizing that he’s going to have to wait; but obviously leaves the next move up to her. “I should always remain an invalid” she says, by way of excusing her passivity. Nonetheless, about mid-way through the movie, she’s actually walking around. Then, she’s plotting to accept Browning’s offer.
What’s odd is the niece’s role (Marion Clayton-Anderson as Bella Hedley); she’s a sort of surrogate Elizabeth for Mr. Barrett. Strangely, she likes the attention. I don’t know enough about the family history to say if the historical Bella had a child-like speech pattern, but it’s certainly a contrast to the well-spoken, refined Elizabeth. This aspect shows up particularly in Elizabeth’s discussions of poetry and her playing the piano and singing. It’s a relief to see her asserting herself and planning her elopement. Wilson (Una O’ Connor) serves admirably as a go-between with Browning. What makes this all work is a bit of collusion between Elizabeth and Henrietta.
At first glance, it seems that the plot is very thin. As one reviewer said, there’s just endless episodes of the father’s abusive behavior. But, furtive bits of reality continue to chip away at the father’s power: both Browning and Surtees literally infiltrate the Barrett household, and, thanks to their courtships, begin to entice Elizabeth and Henrietta away. The father’s tearful reaction to all this hardly betrays any trace of enlightenment; it’s merely a last-ditch display of self-pity. The movie sets up a static premise, but then proceeds to undermine it. The Barretts of Wimpole Street is psychological and emotional, not stagey. The adventure is mental, but clearly has a concrete goal–the wedding and honeymoon to Italy.
With the possible exception of Bella’s character, the acting is very much of a piece. The tone, enhanced by the very textured atmosphere (the dog is a nice touch especially), suits the story very well. And, despite the huge amount of dialogue, the pacing keeps things moving along. A fascinating combination of the pathetic with the deeply romantic. 9/10.