Dir: Frances O’Connor. Starring: Emma Mackey, Fionn Whitehead, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Alexandra Dowling, Amelia Gething, Adrian Dunbar, Gemma Jones. 15, 130 minutes.
“How did you write it?” asks Charlotte Brontë (Alexandra Dowling) of her sister Emily (Emma Mackey). “How did you write Wuthering Heights?”. This is where actor-turned-director Frances O’Connor begins her feverish reimagining of Emily Brontë’s brief life – not at the start but at the very end, Emily a wasted figure nearly consumed by tuberculosis. For O’Connor knows how tantalising that question of “how” can be to us.
Wuthering Heights was the only novel Emily wrote before her death, aged 30, in 1848. We don’t know much of who she was beyond those pages – she documented little about herself, and even her surviving diary entries diverge frequently into fantasy. The film, written and directed by O’Connor in her feature debut, stays faithful to that fervent sense of imagination. Having starred in Patricia Rozema’s own daring adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park in 1999, O’Connor knows the rules of the period drama well enough to break them. Though it takes a liberal approach to biography, it’s so attuned to Emily’s creative spirit that it’s not implausible that this is how the author might have chosen to envision her own life if given the chance. Emily captures the soul of the artist, if not her reality.
“Her powers were unadapted to the practical business of life,” Charlotte famously wrote of her younger sister. “An interpreter ought always to have stood between her and the world.” It’s this particular description that fuels much of O’Connor’s vision, which offers us a heroine whose innate inability to conform to societal expectations leaves her constantly misunderstood and frequently lonely. She’s a source of concern and frustration for her father, Patrick (Adrian Dunbar), and sisters Charlotte and Anne (Amelia Gething). Her brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead), her closest ally, is largely distracted by his own troubles with drink and opium.
It’s easy to read Emily here as neurodivergent, possibly autistic, as multiple academics have suggested. But O’Connor allows that interpretation to exist without enforcing it, carefully avoiding reductive depictions. There’s an equal sensitivity in Mackey’s performance. Her brows are often furrowed. Her eyes frequently downcast. She also plays her as a self-knowing woman with a profound and intense connection to the world around her.
While Charlotte and Anne swoon over the poetic sermons of William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the village’s new curate, Emily finds his words phony and trite. But when her father demands that she take French lessons from the clergyman, their heated philosophical debates quickly take on a carnal nature. It makes sense, really – the author of one of the most impassioned books ever written deserves an equally impassioned biopic. Mackey and Jackson bring true, tortured desires to their scenes, especially as they hungrily tear through the many layers of her voluminous gowns.
Emily, pointedly, does not wallow in the misery we like to ascribe to her short and frequently tragic life. There is great buoyancy and humour in the film. Here the Yorkshire moors – so dark and stormy in Wuthering Heights – are an equal source of wonderment and solace. The camera swims in Mackey’s eyes, in bold and confrontational close-ups, while Abel Korzeniowski’s score is a battle cry of violins which, at times, deliberately overwhelms the dialogue. O’Connor, in a sense, has challenged us to meet Emily on her own terms, even if those around her would not. “It’s an ugly book,” Charlotte says of Wuthering Heights. “Good,” Emily replies. At that moment, I could have cheered out loud.
‘Emily’ is in cinemas from Friday 14 October
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