Emily Brontë’s creative inspiration is explored through an imagined version of the author’s short life in Frances O’Connor’s stirring directorial debut Emily.
Freedom in thoughtby Chris Drew
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Opening with Charlotte Brontë (Alexandra Dowling, Hammer of the Gods) asking her ailing sister Emily (Emma Mackey, Death on the Nile) how she wrote her celebrated novel Wuthering Heights, the film then moves back an unspecified amount of time to answer this literary question.
Emily is introduced as awkward and introverted, often off daydreaming and with no friends outside her family. Living with her three siblings and austere parson father (Adrian Dunbar, The Crying Game), much of her time is spent out on the perpetually windswept moors.
Emily gleefully creates stories with younger sister Anne (Amelia Gething, feature debut) but Charlotte disapproves and influences Anne to withdraw from Emily. Emily’s sometimes-fraught relationship and rivalry with older sister Charlotte is a constant; in one outburst Charlotte tells her that people in the village call Emily “the strange one”.
After a brief failed attempt teaching at the same school as Charlotte, Emily returns home to Haworth crestfallen, having disappointed her father.
Handsome curate William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, The Invisible Man) enters the Brontës’ lives. There is an immediate spark between him and Emily, as well as Charlotte, but Emily is wary, citing him as a man of words but also asking if he can ‘do’.
Much of the film traces the slow-burn relationship between William and Emily as it builds into a gothic and tragic romance, clearly mirroring Emily’s later creations Heathcliff and Catherine. The breathless excitement of desire and first passion are effectively captured.
While Weightman was a real figure, the relationship portrayed in the film between him and Emily is fictional but extremely affecting. Mackey and Jackson-Cohen have excellent chemistry.
But O’Connor’s film is also focussed on the importance of intense, complicated sibling love and loyalty. With Charlotte and Anne away at school, Emily’s time with her brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead, Dunkirk) also becomes a major theme.
The two siblings spend time together on the moors, trespassing to closely observe a wealthy family nearby. Branwell’s carefree nature is a significant influence on Emily and they have a close bond, later tested by a brutal takedown Branwell’s writing that Emily delivers.
Nature as inspiration is ever-present: in one key moment Emily opens a window to be creatively stimulated by the sounds of gentle birdsong, the creaking of branches and rustling of leaves. This is a Yorkshire besieged by almost-constant downpours, echoing Weightman’s introductory sermon of a love of rain. The ominous sound of thunder becomes part of Abel Korzeniowski’s rousing score.
In the lead role Mackey, known to many as the caustic Maeve in Netflix’s Sex Education, is mesmerising, her big eyes frequently in close-up framed by bonnet and bow. Her Emily is a very modern heroine, always watching and observing, and looking to widen her experience. Through her, O’Connor creates a compelling case for how Emily Brontë’s masterpiece Wuthering Heights came to be.
Jackson-Cohen is suitably dashing and conflicted as the tortured love interest and template for Heathcliff while Whitehead and Dowling shine in their scenes with Emily, both at times of harmony and those of sibling conflict.
This is extremely accomplished directorial debut for actress O’Connor, known for playing Fanny, another literary heroine, in Mansfield Park. Hopefully Emily will be the start of more success behind the camera.
As a portrait of the creative mind forming, of heart-breaking romance and the power of sibling love, Emily succeeds on all levels, anchored by a superb central performance from Mackey.
Emily premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival and is released on 14 October 2022 in the UK.