Biopics of our great ladies of literature seem to fall into one of two camps, either holding the authors at a remove and peering at their lives with careful reverence or reimagining their realities as twee picture postcard fantasies and patronising them with a love interest to keep things interesting. Mercifully, Frances O’Connor’s Emily is a different creature altogether; raw, vulnerable and brave; captured with bold strokes and brimming with female rage. I loved her.
Emily (Emma Mackey) is feeling the pressure to put away childish things such as hopes and dreams and follow in her sisters’ footsteps by going out to work and supporting the family. Her brother Branwell may be free to follow his artistic whims but the three surviving sisters have to be more pragmatic. Their days of running free on the moors with the wind wuthering at their backs are far behind them and the Brontë parsonage thrums with the weight of things left unsaid and lives left unfinished. Beside the family home is the graveyard where two lost sisters and their beloved mother already lie. Death has long walked beside the Brontës and, ultimately, it will come for each far too soon.
Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) and Anne (Amelia Gething) find ways to live in the outside world, despite each pining for Haworth in her way. Charlotte hides her grief behind a veneer of respectability and disdain while Anne more gently distances herself from her willful sister and carries her pain with grace. Only Branwell (Fionn Whitehead) shares Emily’s need to lash out at the constraints of their lives and the cold dignity of their father (Adrian Dunbar). He understands that the moors call plaintively to Emily every time she tries to leave them behind, her identity and her environment are inextricably intertwined.
After failing out of a teaching role, Emily is forced to return home to the judgement of her family and compulsory French lessons with the village’s new curate, William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), to improve her mind and her soul. She verbally jousts with him, relieved to have an outlet for her domestic frustration. And, through increasingly risky outings with Branwell, her vivid fantasies begin to colour her careful life and expand its boundaries; frightening her sisters with the gothic depth of her emotions and the weight of her despair.
We know little about the real Emily Brontë and writer/director O’Connor embraces this, dispensing with more tidy and historically recognisable facts about pen names and sisterly correspondence. Her Emily is a waking dream that wonders what if Emily was the one who loosened the ribbons of her stays and had a torrid affair with Weightman rather than the accepted theory that he romanced Anne. But with all due respect to the this fictional (and infuriatingly judgemental) Weightman, who he is doesn’t really matter; it is only what he unlocks and ultimately shatters within Emily that shapes this narrative so interestingly.
Emily the character and Emily the film both come fully alive when she and Branwell are together. Branwell created an infamous portrait of the siblings and later painted himself out. Fionn Whitehead’s moving performance restores his face, form and soul. His presence lights a spark within Emily. Her heightened reactions to the moments of intensity Frances O’Connor has visualised for her perfectly explain how the inexplicable melodrama of Wuthering Heights flowed from her pen. It also goes some way to answering the question Charlotte poses to her in the film’s opening moments as Emily lies dying on the sofa at home.
That sofa. Emily Brontë has been a part of my own life for as long as I can remember. I was supposed to be named after Charlotte but I was born looking like an Emily so Emily I became. I have a thousand Brontë memories, literary and literal – of their moors, their stories, their faces and their tragically short lives – but the most singular is being taken on a peculiar pilgrimage to look at the sofa Emily died on. The image stayed with me, preserved as distinctly as Emily’s writing. It must have lingered with O’Connor too because the camera glances at and frames it uneasily and Nanu Segal’s stunning, soulful cinematography – breathtaking and unrestrained when tracking Emily through the wild outdoors – is at its most intimate in those moments.
Emily Brontë, too often preserved behind glass and page as a tragic prodigy is liberated by O’Connor’s interpretation, Emma MacKey’s passionate embodiment and Segal’s lens. This is a vital and powerful take on the mystery of her too-short life and with less emphasis on the push-me-pull-you dynamics of the Weightman romance and more of the tender, turbulent relationship between the sisters this could have been a pretty remarkable movie. Even without that, Emily still shines.
Emily opens across the UK on October 14th, 2022.