Despite the ongoing popularity of her only novel, very little is known about the life of author Emily Brontë. We know that unlike her equally famous older sister, Charlotte, the Wuthering Heights scribe didn’t live long enough to witness and enjoy her critical success. Upon its release, the story received largely negative reviews. Contemporaries found it coarse and animalistic, while historians wondered how such a sheltered young woman–a parson’s daughter, no less–could so perfectly capture the passion and obsessive nature of the story’s central relationship between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. Blatant sexism aside–a mere woman with imagination, well, I never–her own sister Charlotte seemed startled by its savagery too. But in Emily, filmmaker Frances O’Connor poses a question of her own: what if Brontë experienced more in her short life than even her family knew?
As the film begins, we are introduced to the author as a young woman (played by BAFTA Rising Star Emma Mackey). Gifted with a vibrant imagination and filled with ideas and opinions, Emily notably prefers her home and surrounding moors to any potential the outside world offers. She chafes against the Victorian era’s expectations for women and refuses to take on any position or occupation that would take her away from her beloved Haworth. Shunned by the local villagers for what they view as an off-putting, unladylike disposition and presenting as a constant thorn in the side of the conventional Charlotte, she prefers the company of her troubled brother Bramwell and the imaginary world she’s created with her youngest sister Anne.
Portrayed as spiky at times and argumentative–particularly with her father’s new curate, William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), whom she immediately views as an interloper–it’s clear from the off that Emily is determined to forge her own path. But once Emily is left alone at Haworth for months on end, her sisters having left for teaching positions out of town, she finds herself growing closer to William–much to her own surprise. Their relationship begins as platonic bonding over education and learning but quickly becomes something more, something all-consuming and filled with passion. A once-in-a-lifetime love that calms her frustrations and encourages her imagination.
In mixing historical figures and biographical facts with make-believe and theory, O’Connor has created an absorbing and inspired portrait of a creative talent born before her time. Mackey is magnetic in the lead role, balancing Emily’s frustration with both herself and the world around her with a genuine need to express herself and become comfortable in her own skin. Neither O’Connor’s script nor Mackey’s performance aim to make the author particularly palatable or likeable. The resulting character is truly original, refusing to be easily labelled or categorized. She has elements of both Heathcliff and Cathy, and as the story progresses, audiences familiar with the novel will see it begin to take shape in her mind.
The supporting cast is likewise superb. As the eldest surviving Brontë daughter, Alexandra Dowling nails Charlotte’s dual nature. It’s a role that could read as a bit villainous on the page, but the actress imbues Charlotte’s every move–a constant war of sisterly affection and indulgence with familial responsibility and jealousy of her younger sisters’ natural, more carefree natures. Fionn Whitehead captures the tragic, lost nature of the sole Brontë brother, and Oliver Cohen-Jackson brings depth to his gentle country curate. His William is terrified by Emily’s wildness and by the strength of his feelings, seeing them both as obstacles to his religious calling.
Unsurprisingly in any film about the Brontës, Emily is appropriately moody and atmospheric. Nanu Segal’s cinematography paints the surrounding Yorkshire countryside in arresting shadow and light, capturing both the muddy palette of Victorian England and the beauty of the natural world. Rain is ever-present, but the wild moors are just as appealing under stormy skies as they are under the rays of the sun.
Like Alfred Newman’s critically-lauded 1939 Wuthering Heights score, Abel Korzeniowski’s score fits right in, echoing Emily’s ever-changing moods, uplifting and dramatic in turn. Interspersed with the score are quietly effective moments filled only with the scratching of the quill on paper, the creaking of the trees and the trill of the birds, or the rain and wind. A constant reminder of the author’s deep connection to her home and to nature.
Viewers should come away from Emily with a host of positive impressions. First and foremost an appreciation of first-time director (and screenwriter) O’Connor, but also of Mackey’s riveting performance and of Brontë herself. Engrossing suppositions aside, it’s clear that this author was gifted with far greater abilities and imagination than any of her contemporary critics, or even her family, were willing to acknowledge.
Emily opens in select theatres beginning Friday, February 24.