The story of the life of Emily Brontë before she wrote Wuthering Heights.
The mythology surrounding the authors of classic novels is sometimes as fantastical as the stories themselves, especially in the case of Emily Brontë, who was a member of the famed Brontë family, who wrote the devastatingly beautiful novel Wuthering Heights and died at age 30 with not much known about her personal character. But this also means that there is a lot of space for speculation, and that is what writer and director Frances O’Connor banked on when she created this beautiful and creative version of what could have been Emily Brontë’s life.
The film begins with Emily (Emma Mackey) on her deathbed with her sisters Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) and Anne (Amelia Gething). Charlotte asks her how she wrote Wuthering Heights, a sprawling and haunted tale about forbidden love, manipulation, and the supernatural, and the film flashes back to a few years previously when she is playing makebelieve in the sprawling moors of Yorkshire.
This is not a biopic, and Frances O’Connor does not pretend that her version of events is purely factual; it is a sort of ‘what if’ an imagined history of Emily Brontë, what could have happened. The film tackled her reclusive nature, devotion to her family, and mental health issues and added some what-ifs. What if she had a love affair that resembled that between Cathy and Heathcliff in her novel? What if she tried opium-like many other creatives during that time? What if she got involved in some shenanigans with her brother Branwell? What if she had a terse relationship with her older sister Charlotte? History tends to mute the characters’ lives, especially when they are considered genial and classic. Frances O’Connor chose to bring new life into Emily Brontë’s story to get us to second guess the depth behind her words that have haunted readers for centuries.
When Sex Education’s Emma Mackey was cast in the title role, it seemed like a very deliberate choice. Known for playing the cool rebel Maeve, Mackey would bring a sort of rebellious nature to Emily. No one would believe that this incredibly beautiful and effortlessly cool girl would be a dowdy spinster who lived at home with her father and maiden aunt. But the portrayal of Emily being the ‘strange’ one and her darkness making her a pariah in the community kind of fitted Mackey’s rebellious edge. I enjoyed watching Mackey in this part; she gives Emily confidence in herself and a sense of purpose that she knows she is different, and she revels in that. She also adds a layer of vulnerability to the character, as someone who wants to be pleasing to her father and her sisters but cannot find a way to not be herself. It is a complex way of interpreting the character of Emily, but Mackey seems to embody the role in a unique and magnetic way.
Many Brontë purists will lament this film because of how many liberties O’Connor took with Emily’s life. And for those who are looking for a fact-based film, this is not the one to watch. However, very little is known about Emily because other than a short stint as a teacher in Belgium, she mostly stayed at home in her father’s rectory, unlike her siblings, who attended different schools and held down jobs. She also did not keep a diary or write regular letters like other writers. Most of the knowledge about her comes from what was written by or about her older sister Charlotte, which could be a biased source. O’Connor also plays fast and loose with some actual facts, such as when Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre or what the actual first manuscript of Wuthering Heights looked like. But for me, all her script decisions made sense for the story she was telling. Perhaps it was too influenced by Wuthering Heights or by other fantastical stories, but it talks about how easily we dismiss people without knowing the lives that they might have lived.
The film depicts Emily’s relationship with her father’s curate William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). It begins as distrustful and grows when Emily is the only child at home, and her father instructs William to tutor her in French. The two have spirited debates about religion and freedom of thought until they start a very heated affair. Their secret relationship was incredibly hot to watch and reminded me of The Piano in its depiction of unbridled passion in a historical context. In the way that epic historical romances such as the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice have been romanticised in pop culture, Emily will have fans of historical and moody romances loving this story.
Although Emily is not a modern story in that it tells an alternate version of history or includes modern sensibilities like pop music like Bridgerton or modern ways of speaking like Dickinson, the delicate way the film deals with Emily’s mental health problems shows a very modern understanding of disorders and how one deals with them. It was true that most people around Emily did not understand her struggles, bar her brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead), who seemed to see the real her and love her anyway. The writing of the film itself does not seem to see Emily as a sadsack victim but as someone who lived a full life despite her difficulties.
When leaving the cinema, I felt haunted. Throughout the duration of the film, I felt like I really knew this version of Emily Brontë, and even though one knows from history how she dies, and the film starts on that note, it is still a layer of doom that falls over it. I did not expect to enjoy the film as much as I did or to be affected by it. It is an ode to creatives who don’t quite fit into a box, are a little different, and struggle with things that come easy to others. It might be a tale of Emily Brontë, which is unorthodox and not factual, but it is a tale that celebrates her brilliance and her intelligence in a fun way.
Where to watch: Now showing in cinemas
Cast: Emma Mackey, Fionn Whitehead, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Alexandra Dowling
Our rating: 4/5 Stars
Discussion about this post