Actor-turned-writer-director Frances O’Connor’s sultry, vaguely biographical drama about Wuthering Heights author Emily Brontë captures the Victorian era with a modern sensibility.
Not modern in that post-Bridgerton sense, where black and brown characters hold positions of power in a fantasy British society stripped of colonial history. Instead, Emily feels modern in the way she imagines Brontë’s reclusive behavior and emotional swings taking into account the trauma, depression and other possible mental health issues we have the language for today. today. The characters in the film can’t diagnose these things, but contemporary audiences will notice the signs that O’Connor shrewdly adds to the role played by Sex Education’s Emma Mackey.
Nor does she treat Brontë’s mental and emotional challenges as an unfortunate hindrance or bane in his short life – the author died of tuberculosis at age 30. These are just facets of this deeply sensitive and highly critical character that the film assumes has channeled her joys, sadness, yearning for tenderness, and perspective on human behavior in Wuthering Heights.
Emily is a sensitive and passionate portrait of the author. It’s also a confident directorial debut for O’Connor, a veteran actor who starred in Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park and the BBC’s Madame Bovary, and in turn made a period piece stripped of pageantry and the majesty typical of the genre. His is a more kinetic film, opting for handheld camera work and editing that closely follows the beats of Mackey’s ferocious performance.
Emily covers the years before Brontë wrote her novel, which is about cruel, haunted characters who play devastating games with love and social status. Mackey’s Bronte regularly appears sullen or mortified by its surroundings. She tends to sneak into private spaces or just into her own head. She is the black sheep of her family, both scolded and neglected by her father (Adrian Dunbar), widower and priest. He bestows his full favor on Brontë’s older sister, Charlotte, and older brother Branwell, whose capricious ways demand special attention from the patriarch.
The film reinforces Brontë’s sometimes turbulent emotions, creating environments according to the author’s moods in a way that can be fascinating. There’s a chilling opening scene in which Brontë dons a ghostly white mask to haunt the guests, but gets carried away by his own storytelling ability. She also harbors confused emotions about her deceased mother and justified anger towards her audience. The line between farce and possession is unsettling, and O’Connor leans into it with a thick soundscape and flickering lighting, finding in this scene a basis for the gothic elements of Wuthering Heights.
Emily is the kind of origin story that imagines antecedents in Brontë’s life to elements of her novel, like a passionate affair or a bitter rivalry – given the subject matter, these things can go hand in hand. Using the fictional account of Wuthering Heights as a window into Brontë is unavoidable for any kind of biography, because so little is known about the author. Much of the biographical detail is filtered through Charlotte’s voice, published in Jane Eyre’s author biographies, which O’Connor understandably calls suspicious. His film imagines a small rivalry between siblings. She portrays Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) as a loving sister whose affection can often border on condescension.
Rigid historians will have a field day with this and the film’s other conjectures, such as Brontë’s quiet opium consumption and the central illicit affair she has with William Weightman, a parish priest who lived in the house. family for several years. Maybe this case never happened. If so, who would ever write about it? Either way, O’Connor’s way of putting them together seems fair.
The affair begins with Weightman giving Brontë French lessons, a fierce tete-a-tete in the language of love. They discuss religion. He commands the conversation. She is limited by her understanding of vocabulary but struggles to express herself, blindly refusing to believe what pastors have told her – a very Victorian stance. The sequence overflows with both sexual tension and animosity, a wave of conflicting emotions typical of both Weightman and Brontë, which makes their passion more carnal and involving.
Emily is a sexy movie. O’Connor finds immense pleasure in awkward touches, stolen looks, and overdressed characters ripping off every layer they have. At one point, the film dwells on the work Weightman puts into hastily untying Brontë’s corset. It’s a very thoughtful and possibly feminist bit of on-screen foreplay that isn’t all captured in one shot due to the slow process. And it’s thrilling to watch.