Year:  2022

Director:  Frances O'Connor

Rated:  M

Release:  January 11, 2023

Distributor: Madman

Running time: 130 minutes

Worth: $17.50
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Emma Mackey, Fionn Whitehead, Amelia Gething, Alexandra Dowling, Oliver Jackson-Coen, Adrian Dunbar, Gemma Jones, Sascha Parkinson

… subversive and sumptuous …

The tagline for Frances O’Connor’s debut directorial feature Emily is ‘The Imagination Behind Wuthering Heights’ – and imagination is key to approaching the film. For one of the most famous authors in 19th Century literature, quite little is known about Emily Brontë, at least little that isn’t in some way tainted by her sister Charlotte’s view of her; and further information comes from Charlotte’s friend and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell, who made it clear that she had not heard pleasing reports of Emily. Frances O’Connor uses the gaps in information to envision the mind and life of a woman who changed the face of literature yet barely stepped beyond the confines of Haworth Parsonage in West Yorkshire.

In no manner a traditional biographical film, Emily employs some truths about Emily’s life but prefers to speculate on how a reserved and socially awkward young woman could conceive of her passionate and cruel novel which deeply criticised the morals and social mores of the era in which it was written. For this purpose, O’Connor’s script gives Emily (Emma Mackey) two great loves: her feckless wastrel brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead) and a young and handsome curate, William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Coen).

Gone are the notions of sisterly love (although Emily’s relationship with Anne (Amelia Gething) remains close but not crucial). O’Connor eyes Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) with a certain coldness. On Emily’s deathbed, Charlotte criticises Wuthering Heights for depicting cruel and selfish people. Yet when Charlotte first reads Emily’s manuscript, she is brought to crippling tears of jealousy. If viewers are looking for a more faithful rendering of the shared companionship of the Brontë family, which also includes Branwell, they are better off tracking down Sally Wainwright’s excellent 2016 television film To Walk Invisible.

O’Connor’s Emily is an outsider, even within her own family. Tutored by her father Patrick (Adrian Dunbar) and her maternal Aunt Branwell (Gemma Jones), she is to be shipped off to teacher’s college just as Charlotte was before her. Charlotte is Patrick’s pride and joy – managing to succeed in her career. Emily’s failure to cope with teaching leads her back to the parsonage and under the domestic yoke of Patrick and Aunt Branwell. Facing disapproval from Charlotte and Patrick, Emily finds comfort in the company of Branwell, the blacker sheep of the family. Branwell, the boon companion of her childhood, is the only one who can see that Emily has a fierce mind hiding behind layers of reserve, and what we would now see as a form of mental distress (perhaps brought on by the early loss of her mother and two older sisters).

Branwell roams the moors with Emily (impeccably shot by cinematographer Nanu Segal) and encourages her to embrace her innate creativity. They stand atop a verge and scream at the wind “Freedom in thought!” while they are both under the influence of opium.

O’Connor also imagines an illicit sexual relationship between Emily and Weightman. William Weightman was a real curate who lived with the Brontë family for a few years but there was never a suggestion that Emily was involved with him. Handsome and flirtatious, the young curate caught the eye of many of Haworth’s population, including Anne. In the film, he has an eye for pretty young things, including Charlotte’s friend Ellen Nussey (Sascha Parkinson), but when he becomes Emily’s French tutor, he develops an infatuation with the intelligent and rebellious young woman. It is a passionate but doomed love, as Weightman finds his obsession with Emily to be ungodly, and indeed bestows that title on her. Her poetry frightens him with its intensity, and her consistent challenges to his notion of blind faith and propriety, leave them both open to scandal.

A doomed love, and a doomed life shape Emily. Branwell takes up with the wife of a man whose son he is tutoring (here, the family is called Linton). He is then relegated to a job in a train station. A failed painter, he fancies himself a novelist until Emily delivers some harsh truths about the quality of his writing. Branwell was supposed to carry on Patrick’s legacy as the only Brontë son; instead, he became increasingly dissolute and died from a chest infection brought on by prolific drinking and opium and laudanum use. His final act is to give Emily a letter he hid from her written by the now-deceased Weightman.

The Brontë sisters reunited begin to write in earnest. In O’Connor’s film, it is Emily who first finishes her manuscript which goes out into the world under her own name (not Ellis Bell) and becomes a sensation. Emily’s genius is vindicated in her lifetime – something that did not actually happen. Within a year of publication of Wuthering Heights, Emily would be dead at the age of thirty.

Emma Mackey’s performance as Emily is spellbinding. Mackey personifies O’Connor’s vision of the young woman who is filled with contradictions and complexity. Emily’s eyes can transfix, beguile, be filled with anxiety and disappointment and a simmering rage. Mackey is a 21st Century Emily Brontë but maintains a 19th Century authenticity. The chemistry between Mackey and Jackson-Coen is smouldering. As siblings, and avatars in a way for Cathy and Heathcliff, Mackey also has intense chemistry with Fionn Whitehead (in perhaps his best performance thus far). O’Connor doesn’t go so far as to suggest actual incest but there is something deliberately destructive in Branwell’s relationship with Emily.

Brontë purists are going to find Frances O’Connor’s version of the author difficult, because she deliberately eschews a rote biography for the birth of the person who could write Wuthering Heights – a book seen as so shocking by the public of the time that they could only imagine it being written by a man. There will also be complaints about the lack of sisterly affection; Anne being mostly absent from the film, despite being Emily’s closest friend and confidant, will rankle some. O’Connor’s vision is a subversive and sumptuous glimpse of who Emily Brontë could have been, and even though she was unlikely to be the woman the film depicts, the Emily the audience sees on screen has a flesh and blood all of her own.