Emily: a creative rewriting of the life of Emily Brontë

Risking withering looks from Brontë scholars, this embroidering of the author’s legend has its weak spots, but Emma Mackey’s committed, intense performance isn’t one of them.

Emma Mackey as Emily Brontë in Emily (2022)

The thesis of actor-turned-filmmaker Frances O’Connor’s debut feature is that Emily Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights, her only novel, because she basically lived it: a heated, thwarted love affair, ostensible communing with ghosts, transgressive behaviour (here including alcohol, drugs and a tattoo) and premature death all stem from her own tragic history. Cue withering looks from Brontë scholars, because O’Connor has created her own “imagined world” of the wildest of three sisters whose literary success has long outlived their own sadly curtailed lives.

Ethical concerns of mixing-and-matching fantasy with actuality are understandable – O’Connor’s “fairytale” explanation surely won’t reach many viewers – yet audiences were happy to overlook embroidering of authors’ legends in Shakespeare in Love (1998) or Becoming Jane (2007, about Jane Austen). The real question is whether such fictions shed light on a subject’s emotional truth. Would it be more illuminating if, as is widely supposed, Emily Brontë never personally experienced romance but still managed to produce a novel as febrile and impassioned as Wuthering Heights? Or would we feel we understood her better if we thought she’d been inspired by a liaison with a man of God?

Just such a forbidden union, not based on fact, underpins Emily, as sophisticated but emotionally stunted curate William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) arrives on the windswept moors. Emily’s severe Reverend father (Adrian Dunbar), demanding a clone of refined elder sister Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling), charges Weightman with improving her French. Initially irritated by Emily’s challenges of his unquestioning religious faith, Weightman is soon led into temptation by her rebellious outlook, saturnine charms and carnal poetry.

O’Connor – whose own screen breakthrough was in one of the less reverent Austen adaptations, Mansfield Park (1999) – deftly avoids prettified, starchy ‘heritage movie’ tropes. Cinematographer Nanu Segal deploys all manner of modern touches, often shooting handheld and using natural light or candlelight. But none of this can heat up the lukewarm chemistry of the central pairing or make their whiplash-inducing changes of heart more convincing. In fact, O’Connor’s habit of laying Abel Korzeniowski’s classical score thick on the action often drowns out the lovers’ emotional connections. Meanwhile, far more intriguing scenes of Emily’s sibling rivalries, creative and familial, are confined to the margins.

Fortunately, central to everything – literally, in that O’Connor scrutinises the actor square-on in the middle of almost every frame – is Emma Mackey’s committed, intense performance. If her Yorkshire accent sporadically wanders down the M1, Mackey’s charting of Emily’s inner life compels throughout, particularly when she defies, and defines herself against, Branwell and, later, Charlotte (in bilingual Mackey’s native French, no less). In such moments, Emily’s creative rewriting of emotional truth hits the heights for which it strives.

► Emily is in UK cinemas now.