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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
Love brings both ecstasy and turmoil to the troubled home of THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET.
With its usual opulent style, MGM relates the story of the romance between two of England's most celebrated poets of the 19th Century, Elizabeth Barrett & Robert Browning. Not at all stuffy, the film lets the especially strong performances and the (mostly) true facts of the case propel the drama. It's inspiring to see what adversities real people have had to overcome to still achieve happiness and contribute to society.
Three vivid performances dominate the film. As Elizabeth, Norma Shearer is radiant, conveying the emotions of a woman grasping at the chance for sudden, unbelievable love, while still having to fight off paternal attentions which have become sickly & diseased. Fredric March as Browning fairly explodes on the screen, full of energy and vitality, anxious to express his honest adoration for Shearer, come what may. His great enthusiasm is played with effective contrast as compared to Shearer's enforced languor.
But stealing his every scene is Charles Laughton, fascinatingly perverse as Mr. Barrett, whose warped personality & twisted sensual ego forces him to demand complete, unswerving obedience from his terrified offspring. His eyes hint at passions best left undisturbed and even in his final screen moments he's utterly unrepentant, still plotting pain to punish others.
An excellent supporting cast adds immensely to the film: lovely Maureen O'Sullivan as Elizabeth's sister Henrietta, desperate for freedom from her awful home; affable Ralph Forbes, one of the most under-appreciated actors of the era, as her earnest suitor; birdlike Una O'Connor as Shearer's loyal maid; genial Ferdinand Munier & blunt Leo G. Carroll as Shearer's supportive doctors; flighty Marion Clayton as Laughton's silly niece; and Ian Wolfe as her foppish suitor.
The other Barrett siblings are portrayed by Katharine Alexander (Arabel), Vernon Downing (Octavius), Neville Clark (Charles), Matthew Smith (George), Robert Carleton (Alfred), Allan Conrad (Henry) & Peter Hobbes (Septimus).
Elizabeth Barrett (1806-1861), the eldest of ten children, lived a very happy childhood by all accounts, free to write and pursue her intellectual interests. But after the death of her mother, Mary, and a serious spinal injury resulting from a fall, her life began to darken. The death by drowning of her brother, Edward, brought on an emotional reaction so severe that she became a virtual recluse. Financial problems eventually brought her family to reside at 50 Wimpole Street, London, in 1838. She continued to write and publish poetry, some of which was very highly acclaimed and brought her to the attention of the poet Robert Browning (1812-1889), six years her junior. Highly emotional, his first telegram to her in January of 1845 went straight to the point: "I love your verses with all of my heart, dear Miss Barrett. I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart--and I love you too." He visited her and they fell passionately in love, finally marrying on September 12, 1846. Elizabeth continued living at her father's home for another week before escaping to Florence, Italy, with Browning. (Her father, who really was a wicked old sinner, never forgave her. He finally died in 1856.) Elizabeth's health improved in Italy, and she gave birth to her only child, Robert Wiedmann Browning, in 1849. Her love poems to her husband were published in 1850. Entitled Sonnets from the Portuguese, they became her most famous work. Elizabeth's last years were spent busily involved in the anti-slavery movement, spiritualism & Italian politics. Her health relapsed and she died in her husband's arms in 1861.
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