Written and Directed by Frances O’Connor | 130 min | ▲▲▲△△
A fresh literary biopic has washed up on our cinematic shores, and I confess walking into the screening room I wasn’t altogether excited about it.
The conceit that something essential about the canon of classic lit can be gleaned by watching a fictionalization of the lives of the writers I’ve always found to be, well, a bit of a leap. Maybe it’s because I grew up reading science fiction and have yet to see them presume a parallel between the work of Isaac Asimov and his personal life — though I’ll grant you The Whole Wide World about Robert E Howard did a solid job by making it clear the Conan creator had mommy issues.
Another problem is anyone who’s tried to write anything knows it’s a solitary, unglamorous gig, and movies about the writing life inevitably suggest it just flows out through a swift montage of creative inspiration and lack of perspiration. Boom! Instant classic.
Emily doesn’t entirely escape this trope, but it’s easy to understand the appeal of an exploration of Emily Brontë’s life and mining it for the source of Wuthering Heights — she’s a bit of a mystery, having died at 30 with most of what we know about her through her sister Charlotte’s writings. Brontë scholars will certainly have plenty here to chew over in its creative licence, while the rest of us can enjoy a smartly directed, well-acted drama — one that does reasonably well to avoid the stuffiness of many of these corseted period pieces.
Not at first, though. The opening act introduces us to the reasonably well-off Brontë family in rural Yorkshire — the siblings, Anne (Amelia Gething), Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling), Emily (Emma Mackey), and Branwell (Fionn Whitehead), with live-in Aunt (Gemma Jones) and Reverend Patrick ( Adrian Dunbar). Sibling rivalry is the mood of the day, with prissy teacher Charlotte and “The Strange One,” dark-eyed Emily, not getting along at all. When young curate Mr Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) appears, a junior man of the cloth, all the young women are intrigued.
So far, so Jane Austen, but missing any sign of wit. It’s not until Anne and Charlotte move away and Emily struggles with her pathological introversion that it starts to get interesting. Branwell is a bad influence with his motto “Freedom in Thought,” his dabbling in opium, and a habit of spying on the neighbours, so their father insists Emily focus on her French language skills with Weightman, which allows them to spend time together.
The film does a good job showing how passion for Weightman grows in Emily and how it, and her burgeoning skill as a poet, terrifies him. Of course, the shadow of Catherine and Heathcliff is all over this, but the less the story dwells on Emily the writer and just tells the tale of a young woman’s lustful awakening, the better it is. We also get moments channeling a gothic darkness, including a fascinating scene where characters put on a mask and bring forth voices from beyond.
O’Connor has had a solid career as an actor (Mansfield Park, AI: Artificial Intelligence, and The Importance Of Being Earnest) so is a natural in pulling good work from her cast, and makes a few progressive choices in the direction, editing, and score to push the film in ways you may not expect.
Not all of it works. While recent BAFTA-winner Emma Mackey is a revelation, looking like Margot Robbie’s brunette sister and suggesting much of her talent, it takes awhile for the film to forefront her narrative — the picture could’ve lost 15 minutes in the first act and 15 in the last: The emotional conclusion lands a quarter hour before the movie ends, and heavily borrows notes from Bright Star, Jane Campion’s never-bettered tale of repressed British poets living it like they wrote it. The suggestion that Emily and Branwell got matching forearm tattoos feels more than a little implausible, though maybe we’re to assume they’re the non-permanent variety.
Overall, though, this is engaging stuff. Full marks to first time feature filmmaker O’Connor making the jump behind the camera, and launching Mackey into certain stardom.