Picks and Pans Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

updated 10/27/1997 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/27/1997 01:00AM

PBS (Sun., Oct. 26, 9 p.m., ET)

B+

You're half mortal, half angelic," marvels a male admirer of Helen Huntingdon, the unhappily married Victorian heroine of this lengthy (2½-hour) yet compelling Mobil Masterpiece Theatre drama. A moment later, he lecherously lunges at her. Poor Helen. It's bad enough that her chronically soused spouse, Arthur, has been openly unfaithful, plied their young son with wine and, in a drunken rage, tried to rape her. She must `also fend off Arthur's disreputable drinking companions. So, fleeing one night with her son and a loyal servant, Helen sets up a new identity as a widow in Wildfell Hall, a remote country estate.

That's where this moody adaptation of Anne Brontë's 1848 epistolary novel begins and ends. In between, a smitten neighbor manages to unearth Helen's troubled past, just as her vindictive husband discovers her idyllic hideaway. Anne Brontë may not be in the same league as big sisters Charlotte (Jane Eyre) and Emily (Wuthering Heights), but the performances here are first-rate. As the saintly, emotionally scarred Helen, Tara Fitzgerald (Brassed Off) is luminously affecting. And with his matinee-idol looks, Rupert Graves (A Room with a View) makes the vile Arthur so boyishly irresistible that even an angel would melt in his arms.

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