“Emily” – Wherever I may find her [MOVIE REVIEW]

Emma Mackey as Emily. Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street.

Emma Mackey as Emily. Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street.

Actress Frances O’Connor, in her feature writing and directing debut, has tried to translate her fascination with the enigma that was Emily Bronte into a fanciful biography. Scant actual information about Emily Bronte exists. She was reclusive by nature, suffering from an anxiety disorder that kept her close to home. She made several attempts at leaving her Yorkshire homestead, but she always returned quite quickly. She and her sister Charlotte (Jane Eyre) had plans to open a school that eventually came to naught. Primarily home schooled, she was an excellent pianist and was fluent in German and French. What Emily loved was the countryside around the family home in Yorkshire and writing poetry.

There were four surviving Bronte siblings, raised by their father and aunt after the death of their mother. The two eldest children had died at the school that Charlotte and Emily briefly attended. Barely explored in O’Connor’s fanciful tale are the poetry writing projects that the three sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, shared. All, including brother Branwell, loved to write.

O’Connor portrays Emily as a non-conformist, losing herself in the moors, absorbing nature, injecting it into her poems. Sister Charlotte is by turns supportive and cruel to Emily, often ridiculing her solitary nature. As portrayed in the film, Emily and Branwell shared a rebellious streak, causing no end of havoc in town and always resulting in punishment for him.

Emma Mackey as Emily and Oliver Jackson-Cohen as William. Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street.

A love affair is imagined for Emily that stokes the inner fires and leads to heartbreak. It’s rather a bridge too far to equate her so-called secret love affair with the new pastor as a basis for the relationship explored in Wuthering Heights between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, her foster brother. O’Connor finds it necessary to explore the roots of what she imagined was a passion exhibited by Emily in this hypothetical affair as an inspiration for the gothic novel she produced on the sly. 

The complicated relationship between Charlotte and Emily is more or less accurately portrayed. They, along with youngest sister Anne, wrote together and Charlotte was always trying to take Emily with her whenever she left for teaching jobs. But Charlotte was also disdainful of Emily, whom she viewed as difficult and limited in her writing. 

As time progresses to the pivotal year of 1847, we are barely made aware that Charlotte was the writing star of the family, having published Jane Eyre that fall to great critical acclaim. Admired for its great sense of morality, it was a novel of feminist values. Before resolving in a happily ever after ending, Charlotte was able to expose social hypocrisy, condemning the status quo. That Emily had been writing anything more than poems seems to have slipped by everyone in the family during a time when personal privacy seemed to be lacking.

In the end, what we get is a glimpse at the books Emily has written, lying rather conspicuously on a shelf near her bed. Publication of Wuthering Heights shocked the public with its graphic portrayal of passion and forbidden love, much with the same effect that Lady Chatterley’s Lover would have almost a century later.  Charlotte was horrified. What shame will be visited upon the family. But, yet again, O’Connor chooses to play with the facts for her own convenience. Wuthering Heights, published a mere months after Jane Eyre, was written under a pseudonym. Charlotte would have easily been able to discern who wrote the shocking book because all three sisters wrote under related aliases. As a matter of fact, Jane Eyre was published under the alias that Charlotte had used in the past.

Oliver Jackson-Cohen as William and Emma Mackey as Emily. Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street.

I would have much preferred that O’Connor had chosen to create an original story in a gothic setting rather than fictionalize a biography for her own purposes. Emily Bronte has captivated the literati for years because so little is known. I can understand why O’Connor was fascinated and wanted to invent a backstory for a seemingly repressed young woman who wrote what was a scandalous book at the time but is now the gold standard of intellectual bodice-ripping gothic novels that came after the more demure prose of Jane Austen, books that were no less revolutionary for the time.

Production values are very good, revealing the beauty more than the danger of the moors. Cinematographer Nanu Segal, using a dark palette, sets a foreboding mood. “Emily” greatly benefits from a cast led by Emma Mackey who shines so brightly in the Netflix series “Sex Education.” O’Connor has made very good use of her pout and dark eyes, but Mackey takes full advantage of the script, infusing Emily with a personality of much complexity. Oliver Jackson-Cohen plays her secret love interest William Weightman and is definitely a man to long for. Alexandra Dowling as Charlotte is by turns surly and sweet, making her a cipher in this story. Poor Amelia Gething as Anne is given little of substance to do. Sadly wasted are two veteran actors of note, Adrian Dunbar as the girls’ father, Patrick Brontë, and Gemma Jones as Aunt Branwell. Emily and Weightman were given the lion’s share of development but it would have helped to shore up the other characters who, more than likely, played major roles in Emily’s life. 

Opening Friday February 17 at the AMC Century City and The Grove.


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