Director: Frances O’Connor
Cast: Emma Mackey, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Fionn Whitehead, Alexandra Dowling Amelia Gething, Adrian Dunbar, Gemma Jones
Runtime: 2 hrs 11 mins
Rating: M18 (Sexual Scenes)
Released By: Shaw
Opening Day: 5 January 2023
Synopsis: EMILY tells the imagined life of one of the world’s most famous authors, Emily Brontë. The film stars Emma Mackey (Sex Education, Death on the Nile) as Emily, a rebel and misfit, as she finds her voice and writes the literary classic ‘Wuthering Heights’. EMILY explores the relationships that inspired her – her raw, passionate sisterhood with Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling – The Musketeers) and Anne (Amelia Gething – The Spanish Princess); her first aching, forbidden love for Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen – The Lost Daughter, The Haunting of Bly Manor) and her care for her maverick brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead – The Duke, Dunkirk), whom she idolises.
Little is known about Emily Bronte, the second youngest child of the accomplished Bronte family, who before her death from tuberculosis at the age of 30, had written one of the most celebrated novels in English literature. You should know therefore that ‘Emily’ is largely a work of speculation from actress turned first-time writer-director Francos O’Connor, drawn from what scant details there are of Emily’s life and O’Connor’s imagination of how the shy, reclusive author came to channel her joys, sadness and yearnings into her one great book.
‘Emily’ begins by acknowledging the one question that those who know the brilliance of ‘Wuthering Heights’ would have. “How did you write ‘Wuthering Heights’?” The question is asked by her older sister Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling), whom some will know was the author of ‘Jane Eyre’. As we soon learn, whereas Charlotte was regarded as the brightest child of the family and her younger sister Anne (Ametha Gething) was adored as the cute one, Emily never really quite fit in socially, whether in her family or in the Yorkshire town where she is called ‘the strange one’.
After suffering from intense homesickness while trying to teach alongside Charlotte at a school, Emily returns home to be regarded a failure in the eyes of her domineering father (Adrian Dunbar). Emily finds solace in her older brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead), whose rebellious streak changes her life in both good and bad ways – on one hand, she learns about the possibilities when one is able to exercise ‘freedom in thought’; and on the other, she is threatened by the same demons Branwell has fallen in with, including alcoholism, opium and a troubling affair with a married woman.
The last, in particular, she is doomed to repeat after falling in love with the new curate William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who has joined the Bronte patriarch’s church. Right from William’s first French lesson to Emily at the behest of her father, the pair spar over religion, faith and God, their tete-a-tete brimming with both sexual tension and animosity. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that it is probably no surprise that their romance, however genuine and intense, ends in heartbreak and even tragedy; in fact, literary fans will probably recognise quite quickly the parallels with the tragic saga of Heathcliff and his Catherine.
Some may dismiss the affair between Emily and William as cliché, but there is no denying the thrill of this windswept tale about a woman discovering the most powerful and yet devastating emotion of all called love. Indeed, it is to O’Connor’s credit that her storytelling portrays so compellingly how Emily’s episodes with Branwell and William lead her to establish within herself a hitherto unseen independence and creativity, qualities which no doubt led Emily to be unafraid to put her imagination onto paper and thus to create the passionate book that will become one of the most enduring novels.
While she may not be an obvious choice for the role, Emma Mackey turns out to be a beautiful fit for the part. Not only does she embrace Emily’s awkwardness, Mackey perfectly captures the character’s mercurial moods; in one of the best scenes of the film, Mackey brilliantly conveys Emily’s complex feelings towards her late mother and her sisters as she dons a ghostly white mask and takes on her late mother’s persona to blur the line between prank and possession. It is a spirited performance all right, and Mackey is a powerhouse.
So even though ‘Emily’ is probably more than less a work of fiction, it is still a poignant exploration of its subject and her interior life. That it is the first time O’Connor has stepped behind the camera makes it an even more noteworthy achievement, especially in how she eschews the pageantry and stateliness that is often typical of such genre pieces and instead aims for a kinetically involving piece. By neither romanticising the period or the romance between Emily and William, ‘Emily’ also proves to be a befittingly feminist, revisionist spin on the much-loved author. Trust us when we say that you don’t have to be a Bronte fan to enjoy this ravishing period drama..
(Kinetic, involving and poignant, this story of the life of Emily Bronte brims with passion, irreverence and wisdom)
Review by Gabriel Chong