In her editor’s note to the novel Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Brontë described the book as “moorish, and wild, and knotty as a root of heath.” She attributed its nature to its author, her sister Emily, being “a native and nursling of the moors.” Emily, the biopic of the younger Brontë sister, feels similarly informed by the moors that it is set on. Frances O’Connor crafts a story about a brilliant young woman on a difficult journey to find herself and her creative voice while experiencing love, heartbreak, and loss in a world that continually asks her to make herself milder and meeker. It’s an appropriately haunting gothic tale but also at turns romantic and humorous, never veering too far into one genre to feel unlike real life.
O’Connor’s portrait of Emily Brontë (Sex Education‘s Emma Mackey) begins in her teenage years when her sister Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) returns home from Law Hill School with a promise of a position for Emily to be a teacher there as well. But Emily would rather continue daydreaming and making up stories at home in her father’s parish than go out and meet new people. Her sister Anne (Amelia Gething) tells her that their stories are childish and they need to grow up, while Charlotte desperately seeks their father’s affection.
Meanwhile, the arrival of a handsome young new curate William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) sets all the women of the parish aflutter, including Emily’s sisters. Emily, however, would rather vex him than simper over him which naturally peaks his interest. She’s also in the process of trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life.
Mackey is absolutely transcendent as the prickly, but passionate Emily who doesn’t know how to deal with new people and can’t seem to help but question everything about her world. Mackey brilliantly brings Emily’s inner turmoil to life, but also her vibrant spirit, particularly as her brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead) encourages her wild side, leading her to partake in alcohol, drugs, and late night roaming over the moors. Hers is an Emily that you can easily imagine creating characters like Heathcliff and Cathy.
While there is certainly speculation about Emily’s life involved in the film, it actually adheres shockingly close to historical accuracy even including little details like the portrait of the Brontë sisters that Branwell painted being in the background of a shot. There are minor inaccuracies, like the fact that it shows Wuthering Heights being published under Emily’s own name and not her pen name, but nothing that fully detracts from the stories. Michael O’Connor’s gorgeous costumes perfectly fit the Victorian era, as do the makeup and hairstyles. We often see Emily’s hair left down, but it’s clearly meant to emphasize how little she fits in with the standards for womanhood placed upon her.
One of the greatest things about O’Connor’s beautiful and stirring screenplay is how she constructs the bonds of family between the Brontë siblings. While the film certainly contains romance, it is the family that is at the heart of it. From the haunting presence of the mother who died when they were young, whom Charlotte refuses to speak of to Branwell’s own struggles to find his calling, Emily is clearly shaped by those closest to her. The sisterly antics are hilarious and give an idea of a close knit family, but their fights are painful to watch.
It’s an incredibly impressive directorial debut for Frances O’Connor, who is herself no stranger to starring in period dramas in her career as an actress. From the steamy hot sex scenes to the wigged-out opium sequences, she excels at crafting the atmosphere for each turn of the film. The filmmaking, from the lighting to occasionally shaky hand cam, often reflects Emily’s emotions. Her creative shots and editing are ambitious for a first feature, but overall work astoundingly well. The rest of the craftwork complements O’Connor’s vision perfectly from Abel Korzeniowski’s gothic score to Nanu Segal’s cinematography, loaded with sweeping shots of the moors.
Similar to how Greta Gerwig’s Little Women leads up to Jo March writing Little Women, Emily culminates in Emily writing Wuthering Heights. But Charlotte calls it base and ugly, demanding of her sister, “How did you write Wuthering Heights?” Perhaps Emily itself is a bit like that: somewhat coarse around its edges, but filled with a passion that highlights its strange beauty.
This review is from the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Bleecker Street will release Emily on in theaters in 2023.