Written by: Heidi Shepler | February 16th, 2023
Emily (Frances O’Connor, 2022) 3 out of 4 stars.
The Brontë family is as mysterious as it was artistically prolific: sisters Emily, Charlotte, and Anne Brontë are some of the most influential Victorian novelists, yet very little is actually known about their private thoughts and feelings. This is especially true for Emily Brontë, author of Wuthering Heights. Frances O’Connor’s directorial debut feature, Emily, paints a portrait of the author as loving but implacable, with a soul as beautiful and harsh as the moors she featured in her only novel.
One of the film’s core weaknesses is also one of its greatest strengths. Emily suggests that there was a romantic relationship between Emily (Emma Mackey, Death on the Nile) and local curate William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Mr. Malcolm’s List). William Weightman did truly exist and was known for being a notorious flirt; there’s evidence that both Charlotte and Anne Brontë may have been intrigued by him. But there is no evidence whatsoever that Emily Brontë was attracted to Weightman, or that he returned the attraction of any of the sisters, let alone Emily.
It’s difficult sometimes for a modern audience to accept that a sheltered Victorian woman, the daughter of a clergyman no less, could write a novel as beautiful, harrowing, passionate, and sexually charged as Wuthering Heights without ever having experienced a sexual relationship. So it’s understandable to speculate that maybe she did, in fact, lead a passionate affair which was never discovered. And the relationship as depicted in Emily is very well-realized. Mackey’s portrayal of Emily is liberated in her desire and her joy, unapologetic in her pursuit of William, and unwilling to pretend that everything is fine when things go awry. Jackson-Cohen makes William a worthy partner of Emily, whose equal passion and intellect are marred by his fear of rejecting convention. There is a pivotal letter toward the end of the film that is deeply moving.
The problem, though, is that a fictional relationship becomes central to the story of Emily’s life, to the detriment of her other relationships. Older sister Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling, the BBC’s The Musketeers series) is reduced to a prudish and scolding matronly figure, depriving us of the subtle and complicated, but ultimately loving, relationship she had with Emily. Younger sister and best friend Anne (TikTok celebrity Amelia Gething) is barely present; their father is distant and unsupportive; and younger sister Marie, who died in childhood, is never even mentioned. The only other relationship properly explored in the film is with her brother Branwell. Fionn Whitehead (The Duke) shines as this brother, who wants to encourage Emily’s freedom but also protect her from his own demons and addictions.
Emily may be as complicated as the author was herself. The characters are flawed, somehow both larger than life and entirely human. The sound design in particular is poetic and evocative; the way the sound of the rain is used to portray Emily’s feelings could feel trite but never does. Emma Mackey’s performance is electric and uncompromising. Regardless of the details, the film got at least one thing absolutely right: against the overwhelming force of Victorian repression, Emily Brontë was an immovable object, and the world is better for her having lived in it.