The main change to history is the fictional love triangle between Emily, Charlotte and Nicholls. This is the lives of the Bronte sisters reduced to a bitch fight between Charlotte and Emily. Why they would squabble over humdrum Nicholls can only be explained by there being slim pickings in Haworth; the locals either have unintelligible Yorkshire accents or hilariously slow and laboured ones. Nicholls gets a risible line that is presumably meant to be romantic, as he grabs Charlotte with a glint in his eye: ““There are two ways of dealing with a woman of your perverse temperament, Miss Brontë. It is lucky for you that I am not a woman-beater.” She’ll get kissed into submission instead, with Henreid as a poor man’s Clark Gable.
Charlotte doesn’t stop at Nicholls though. When she and Emily are employed as teachers in Brussels, she has her eye on married man M. Heger (Victor Francen). Whilst Charlotte did have a crush on him in real life, here she practically throws herself at him with nary a care for Emily’s unhappiness in Brussels. She even simpers around podgy William Thackerey (Sidney Greenstreet) as she mixes in London’s literary circle.
According to this film, Charlotte is a good craftsman but Emily is the true genius. “I know nothing. I understand nothing. And yet, I have dared to write 200,000 words about life!” she declares as she hurls her manuscript across the room. De Havilland really goes for the less than flattering portrayal of Charlotte. It’s not her fault that she ends up being slightly comic; it’s the writer’s moralistic attitude towards Charlotte and the generally soapy treatment of the subjects. Lupino comes off best; her visions of a dark cloaked horseman (symbolic of her doomed death) are genuinely sinister and her devotion to similarly tragic Branwell is powerful. Bizarrely and disturbingly, de Havilland and Lupino show more passion towards Kennedy than Henreid. The love triangle is rather tepid titillation; the real devotion of the film is the sisters towards Branwell. Despite playing an alcoholic who causes his sisters social embarrassment, Kennedy is likeable, highlighting Henreid’s unappealing performance. Everybody else acts with the heightened passions that melodrama requires but Henreid is starchy- hardly one to inspire the creation of Heathcliff or Rochester.
For fans of melodrama, this is joyful- Erich Korngold composed a glorious score full of Doom and Passion. The Brontes are consistently in some state of Passion; well apart from ditzy little Anne. Though unintentionally humorous, the irreverence and force of Devotion’s fantasy beats plain fact hands down.