Frances O’Connor makes a remarkable directorial debut with a passionate fictionalised account of Emily Brontë’s life. The story takes inspiration from descriptions of the writer’s character, mainly penned by her sister Charlotte, but is otherwise largely based on conjecture, rather than historical evidence, as little information on Emily’s personal perspective survives. In spite of this limitation, the film creates a persuasive portrait and perfectly captures Emily’s wild spirit as readers have come to imagine it, based on the emotions that transpire in her great classic novel Wuthering Heights.
The three Brontë sisters made their names as acclaimed writers in the 19th century (using male pen names – a detail the film chooses to disregard), but Emily’s writing began to be widely appreciated only posthumously. A black sheep in the family, Emily (played by Emma Mackey) is portrayed as shy and aloof, but with an incredibly strong emotional current driving her actions. Although close to her sisters and practically a best friend to her brother, Branwell, she often clashes with those around her due to her directness and unwillingness to conform. Matters are complicated further when their stern father invites clergyman William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) to stay with them. Emily’s provocative comments on religion agitate the newcomer, but their verbal conflicts also spark a flame of reciprocal interest.
The protagonist’s tumultuous feelings intensify the drama as secrets, rivalries, loss and romance shake the lives of the Brontës. The moors, a prominent feature in Emily’s life and in her famous novel, form an ideal visual frame to the story, which is charged with gothic elements. The threatening weather and heavy rains are also highly atmospheric and captured effectively, with the soundscape playing a huge role throughout the film. There is a frequent use of handheld cameras, which gives the audience a perspective from inside the action. O’Connor decided to include such shots because she feels that period dramas can feel distancing.
Emily imagines the writer’s inner life with great compassion and does full justice to the author’s greatness without idolising her. Mackey is cast perfectly for the titular role, speaking with her eyes and expressing so much through her silences. This is a fantastic feature that may take liberties when it comes to factuality, but it more than makes up for that with its gripping dramatic tone and a real regard for its central character.
Emily is released nationwide on 14th October 2022.
Watch the trailer for Emily here: