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She was an impenetrable figure: shy, reclusive, suspicious of new friends and more at home in the Yorkshire moors than any village or city. She was also brilliant — a gifted poet whose foray into fiction, Wuthering Heights (the only novel she wrote before her death in 1848), spins a tale so eccentric and passionate that it’s gathered a febrile following since its publication.
Emily Brontë, the second youngest of the accomplished Brontë family, was an abstract figure. Details of her life are scant. (Most known testimony was provided by her overbearing older sister, Charlotte.) She was not a fastidious diarist and existing journal entries blur the lines between fact and fiction. In other words, Emily, a virtually unknowable person, is the perfect subject for a film.
The English-Australian actress Frances O’Connor (Mansfield Park) knows this, and that’s why her directorial debut Emily is not a strict biography — it’s a speculative project, an admirer’s serviceable interpretation of an elusive life. Using a series of finely detailed vignettes, O’Connor renders an ethereal portrait of the young writer. Emily builds on earlier Brontë depictions like Curtis Bernhardt’s 1946 Devotion, André Téchiné’s 1979 The Brontë Sisters and Sally Wainwright’s 2016 BBC television film To Walk Invisible. It lifts Emily out of the foggy shadows and into the center, clarifying her identity with a narrative of misanthropy, love and ambition. The film ripples with potential, even if it isn’t always realized: Emily deservedly treats its eponymous protagonist as a misunderstood heroine, but in reaching to assign her a legible identity, the narrative can’t help but tip into cliché.
Sex Education’s Emma Mackey bears the responsibility of embodying Emily, following in the footsteps of Ida Lupino in Devotion, Isabelle Adjani in the The Brontë Sisters and Chloe Pirrie in To Walk Invisible — and what a splendid job she does. With her angular face and penetrating gaze, Mackey commands the screen, confidently shepherding us through Emily’s mercurial moods. Her eyes — darting nervously at one moment, squinting suspiciously at another — tells us what dialogue can’t.
Our first proper introduction to the young woman is Emily sitting beneath the foreboding gray clouds hovering over her rural home. In the Yorkshire moor, where the middle Brontë was raised and chose to stay long after her sisters left, the weather possesses its own unpredictable temperament. O’Connor and DP Nanu Segal take advantage of the landscape and its natural light: There’s an unforced, bleak intensity to the undulating hills, overcast skies and ash trees swaying in the wind.
Fans of the Brontës will find Emily’s plot points familiar, but O’Connor frames the film around a question Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) poses to Emily when the latter is close to death. “How did you write it?” the eldest Brontë asks in an urgent, almost disbelieving tone. “How did you write Wuthering Heights?” With that, the film returns to earlier years in the Brontë household, where we begin to understand the degree of Emily’s difference from her siblings. Unlike Charlotte, Anne (Amelia Gething) or brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead in an assured turn), Emily is more of a loner. The other Brontës rationalize her eccentricity as an inability to let go of fanciful stories conjured in childhood, but we are meant to understand Emily’s ritualistic continuation of these tales as a mark of her imagination.
Her comfort in the moors — she spends hours exploring the terrain — and active imagination make socializing with anyone outside of her family boring. People in town call her “the strange one,” a fact repeated by more than one of her siblings. “Is it nice having friends outside the family?” Emily asks Charlotte after the eldest Brontë returns home from a teaching job. The question is less a sign of curiosity than an expression of skepticism about life and people outside the moor. When William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a new curate, joins the Brontë patriarch’s church, his rousing, poetic speech woos everyone except Emily, who finds it banal and pompous. Charlotte, on the other hand, is charmed and quickly develops a crush on the dashing clergyman.
Emily makes some effort to fit in. She tries teaching alongside Charlotte but, after intense and frequent bouts of homesickness, is sent home. Her return makes her a failure in the eyes of her domineering father Patrick (Adrian Dunbar), who demands Emily take French lessons with Weightman to improve her shoddy language skills and help her aunt (Gemma Jones) around the house. She begrudgingly accepts these orders.
The misanthropic writer manages to carve out a fruitful existence despite her obligations. Her friendship with Branwell, a wayward soul who oscillates between poetic and painterly ambitions, blooms. Their relationship is portrayed sweetly: They talk for hours in the moor, exchange poetry and spend their evenings hatching mischievous plans. But Branwell has his own troubles, battling alcoholism, an opium addiction and a troubling love affair with a married woman.
Although Emily doesn’t mind her brother’s misdirection, Weightman does. The icy relationship between the young woman and the stoic curate melts into an affectionate friendship and then, predictably, a fiery romance over the course of their French lessons. Their scintillating dalliance — characterized by intellectual debates in French and meetings in the abandoned cottage that inspired Wuthering Heights — is intensified by its secrecy. But upon learning about Emily’s poetic gifts, Weightman warns her to distance herself from her brother.
The messy triangle leaves Emily in an odd position, although she never explicitly has to make a choice between one man or the other. The film comes dangerously close to portraying Brontë’s creative pursuits as fueled mainly by these men and their warring desires (the two, naturally, despise each other). O’Connor’s reliance on vignettes is a compounding factor: These sketches play well enough, especially when accompanied by Abel Korzeniowski’s sweeping score, but characters and their motivations can only be outlined so much before we transition to another scene.
Emily’s craft comes in and out of view as her relationships with Branwell and Weightman become major sources of disappointment. There are gratifying scenes of her at work: Mackey hunched over a desk, staring out of a window into the moors, picking up an ink pen and furiously writing. Her imagination is, for the most part, treated as an otherworldly gift. There are, however, moments when Emily abandons its mission of demystification for the more challenging task of understanding what drove Emily to write. In those instances, the film attributes the poet’s skills to observational prowess and sturdy intuition. The answer to the question of how she managed to write Wuthering Heights becomes simple: by living and paying close attention.
Distributor: Bleecker Street Films
Production companies: Ingenious Media, Tempo/Beaglebug Production, Arenamedia
Cast: Emma Mackey, Fionn Whitehead, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Alexandra Dowling, Adrian Dunbar, Amelia Gething, Gemma Jones
Director-screenwriter: Frances O'Connor
Producers: Piers Tempest, Robert Connolly, David Barron
Executive producers: Robert Patterson, Jo Bamford, Abel Korzeniowski, Tim Haslam, Hugo Grumbar, Peter Touche, Jamie Jessop, Andrea Scarso, Michael Reuter, Sebastian Barker, Oliver Parker
Director of photography: Nanu Segal
Production designer: Steve Summersgill
Costume designer: Michael O'Connor
Editor: Sam Sneade
Composer: Abel Korzeniowski
Casting director: Fiona Weir
Sales: Embankment Films
2 hours 10 minutes
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