Despite writing one of the most rugged and enduring novels in all English literature before her 30th — and final — birthday, Emily Brontë spent the whole of her life in a suffocating environment that saw her brilliant imagination dampened at every turn. It was dampened by the patriarchy scared of her talent (“Wuthering Heights” was of course published under a pseudonym), by the individual men who knew her personally, and even sometimes by her own sisters, two of whom survived childhood to become accomplished writers themselves. Vindicating as it might be that Brontë’s one great book is still read widely some 200 years later, her remarkable victory over death pales in comparison to the poetic irony of her legacy: Few authors of any age have ever so inflamed public imagination by the mere fact of their existence.
In that light, it’s easy to appreciate why Brontë’s life so naturally lends itself to the sort of film that long-time actor (“Mansfield Park,” “Bedazzled,” “A.I.”) and first-time filmmaker Frances O’Connor has made about her in “Emily,” a ravishing period drama that plays fast and loose with the facts in order to paint a portrait of the author that bleeds with the same heart-in-its-hands emotionality she had to suffuse into her work.
Of course, Brontë’s blank canvas allure won’t stop purists from scoffing at O’Connor’s Gen Z-friendly decision to cast “Sex Education” star Emma Mackey in the title role (a brilliant idea, it turns out). And those same people will surely be up in arms over her melodramatic vision of how literature’s most famous middle child came to write “Wuthering Heights” — not least of all because it involves getting high on opium and giving a blowjob to the hunkiest new member of the Yorkshire clergy while Abel Korzeniowski’s vortex-like violin score goes absolutely hog wild over the soundtrack.
But such invented splashes of rebellion and romance only add to the ecstatic truth that “Emily” brings to its windswept tale of a stultified woman survived by her inner strength. They’re all the more agreeable in a movie that (mostly) eschews the presentism that’s become so en vogue in Victorian-era adaptation, and resists the urge to go full “Shakespeare in Love” in its suggestion that Brontë lived a bit of “Wuthering Heights” before she put it to paper.
And yet, it’s reasonable to assume that Brontë really did project some of her own suffering onto the tragic saga of Heathcliff and his Catherine, particularly because her lived experience was so narrow. So the trouble for a movie like “Emily” — and the insurmountable challenge that confronts O’Connor’s unremarkable but sensitively rendered script — is that its mere existence implies that someone already turned Brontë’s life into an immortal work of genius that heaves with many of the same ideas. There’s no harm in highlighting her story for a new generation, or in rekindling the embers of someone who burned too bright for this world, but even a movie as evocative and well-mounted as this one can’t help but feel like a shadow of a shadow. It traces the silhouette of “The Strange One” without ever achieving the emotionality it needs to feel her touch first-hand.
Still, there’s real pleasure to be had in watching it try. Much of that stems from the film’s conception of Emily herself, which starts with the author on her deathbed (“How did you write ‘Wuthering Heights?’” her older sister demands to know), and then goes back in time to answer the question of why a super-repressed introvert — stranded on the surface of the moon, grieving the loss of her mother and two eldest siblings, and denied every chance to follow her passions — might be inspired to pen something that reflects the harshness of Victorian life. That may not be the world’s greatest mystery, but O’Connor’s film wonderfully shudders with the shock of Brontë’s time.
It’s clear from the start that Emily is as lost in her family as she is in her thoughts. Her older sister Charlotte (a suitably pinched Alexandra Dowling) is the apple of her father’s eye, her younger sister Anne (Amelia Gething) is still just a cute presence around the house, and her older brother Branwell (“Dunkirk” lead Fionn Whitehead) is just enough of a fuck-up to usurp any of the family’s leftover attention. But Emily has her stories, and — without putting too fine a point on it — there’s no doubt that she can see all sorts of powerful energies swirling around the moors that surround the Brontë house in all directions. It’s a testament to cinematographer Nanu Segal that the film’s Caravaggio-like interiors articulate those volatile auras with the same intensity as its awe-inducing shots of the landscape beyond.
The first hour of O’Connor’s leisurely film (well-paced until its endgame sprint to the finish) does a brilliant job of establishing how Emily found solace in her siblings, and also how she felt alienated from them. She’s different, to be sure — as we see in a virtuoso montage of her brief, difficult time at a school away from home — but hardly the sort of Wednesday Addams-esque proto-goth her minister father might want to hide in the attic. The film’s best scene memorably cuts to the heart of the matter (while also hinting at the bleeding heartache of Mackey’s beautiful performance), as a masked guessing game ends with Emily channeling the Brontës’ dead mother so well that we almost believe she’s being possessed. Anne and Charlotte love their sister, but they’re scared for her as well; they share the depth of her pain, but struggle to understand the impetuous ache of its expression.
Branwell has a slightly better grasp on what makes Emily tick, but the simpatico energy between them betrays a painful covetousness once Emily begins to swoon for the handsome new clergyman their father has brought in from the big city. Emily rolls her eyes at William Weightman’s (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) initial sermons about how “God is in the rain” and whatnot, but such bad writing can only do so much to hide the poetic soul behind it, and it’s only a matter of time before their long, unsubtitled French lessons — masterclasses of body language and batted lashes — lead to unsubtitled French lessons of another kind.
We never believe that William is worthy of Emily, but O’Connor never really asks us to. What matters is that he stokes her lust for life, even as he’s scared by the “ungodly” talent that their secret trysts help tease out from her. Suffice it to say that Emily isn’t the only one made cruel by her terror; while everyone around her is scared of the woman she’s becoming, she’s petrified of the woman she’s supposed to be. “Emily” ultimately contrives a domino-like sequence of tragedies from that disconnect, mirroring “Wuthering Heights” in the broadest of strokes without quite bordering on déjà vu. It’s sad and well-arranged, even when it’s stunted by the palpable sense that a truly great work of art is hiding just over the horizon.
“Emily” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Bleecker Street will distribute it in the United States.