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In 1845 London, the Barrett family is ruled with an iron fist by its stern widowed patriarch, Edward Moulton-Barrett. His nine grown children are afraid of him more than they love him. One of his rules is that none of his children are allowed to marry, which does not sit well with youngest daughter Henrietta as she loves and wants to marry Captain Surtees Cook. Of the nine, the one exception is his daughter Elizabeth, who abides faithfully to her father's wishes. Elizabeth does not think too much about the non-marriage rule as she has an unknown chronic illness which has kept her bedridden. She feels her life will not be a long one. With her time, she writes poetry, which she shares by correspondence with another young poet, Robert Browning. Elizabeth's outlook on her life changes when she meets Mr. Browning for the first time, he who has fallen in love with her without even having met her. She, in return, falls in love with him after their meeting. With Mr. Browning's love and ... Written by
The Barrets Of Wimpole Street is a film based on rumours of poet Elizabeth Barrett's relationship with her father who allegedly abused her. As such the film makes for an interesting 'gossip column' type of story found in celebrity magazines. This of course does not trivialise the serious nature of abuse.
What is most interesting in The Barretts Of Wimpole Street is that the nature of abuse -which takes on an incestuous form, - and the fact that it is conveyed through the image of the great Charles Laughton who is far from abundant in classic film star good looks. Therefore, in this instance abusive parents are depicted with a certain image which lacks favourable features. If a more glamorous cinema idol had played the part of Edward Moulton-Browing, perceptions of abuse could become distorted even though looks are irrelevant to abusive behaviour.
It is also ironic that the abused Elizabeth Barrett's only opportunity to escape (at least it would appear that way) is via another controlling man. The difference is that Robert Browning wants (not totally motivated by altruistic reasons because he needs to fulfil his own emotional needs) the best for Elizabeth, whereas her completely selfish father only wants what's best for himself.
The acting in this version of the Barretts Of Wimpole Street is of the highest calibre. This is especially for the three leads. While Laughton conveys his character Edward Moulton-Barret's abuse with a malicious menace that is extremely frightening, Norma Sheara is amazing as the abused Elizabeth Barret. Her face conveys such helplessness of a woman trapped, not only by her physical condition and environment, but by the psychological anguish of a woman torn between her abusive father and the importance of her own well being. Indeed Edward Moulton-Barrett's children have learnt to receive their Father's approval via abuse.
In addition to conveying her anguish, Shearer illustrates that she is adept at illustrating the poetic Elizabeth when she interacts with Fredric March through her delivery of lines. This is reciprocated by March's efforts who is equally poetic in his highly animated delivery of lines.
The supporting cast all give tremendous performances, especially that of Maureen O'Sullivan. She plays the naive, younger sister Henrietta to her stolid older sibling Elizabeth. Comic relief comes from Una O'Conner as Elizabeth's loyal maid Wilson, and Marion Clayton Anderson as the scatty cousin Bella. Also good is canine acting from Flush the dog, who slinks into his basket right on cue at the mere sight of Charles Laughton's character Edward Moulton-Barrett.
This film adaptation of The Barrets Of Wimpole Street is cleverly adapted from the stage, and is one of the best of its era.
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