I always find it intriguing to get a glimpse of what could’ve been the inspiration for some of the world’s classic novels. In Becoming Jane and Shakespeare In Love, Jane Austen’s and William Shakespeare’s own love stories became the inspiration for their famous works. This time it’s Emily Brontë’s turn. Now, I don’t know much about Emily’s life nor have I read the novel, but I have seen at least one adaptation of Wuthering Heights (the one starring Timothy Dalton, who also played Mr. Rochester in one of my favorite Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre adaptations).
Going into this film, I am aware that this is a speculative biopic, it’s a reimagining of her life and the events that could’ve inspired her only novel, Wuthering Heights. Growing up in the Yorkshire moors with her two sisters Anne and Charlotte, Emily is a shy, reclusive young woman who’d likely be diagnosed as neurodivergent in today’s medical terms. After losing their mother and two older sisters, Charlotte pretty much took up the motherly role but of course, there’s sibling rivalry going on, particularly between her and Emily. At one point Charlotte tells Emily that everyone thinks of her as the ‘strange one’ which clearly hurts Emily a great deal.
She often turns to her brother Branwell who seems to understand her and they share a wild, creative imagination. The “Freedom of Thought” scene where Branwell encourages Emily to scream out aloud from atop a hill is a memorable one, displaying his idealistic whimsy. Their playful scenes together could be a nod to the troubled, seemingly-incestuous relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff who were raised as siblings in WH.
Her pastor father barely understood Emily and eventually neglects her completely. The arrival of the handsome William Weightman, her father’s curate (assistant to a parish priest) starts out innocently enough. He flirts with all the Brontë sisters, though Emily seems unaffected by his charm, Just like Lizzie and Darcy in Pride & Prejudice, they did not get off on the right foot initially, but as they’re often thrown together in various situations and William became her tutor, feelings slowly develop between them. William tries to resist Emily at first, attempting to stay true to his faith, alas, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
Unlike the more um, chaste adaptations of Austen novels, this is a deliberately moody, forlorn, yet steamy portrayal of a woman just discovering her feelings and sensuality. The attraction between Emily and William reaches a feverish level, it’s all amorous lust and unbridled passion, especially their first tryst in the barn. The film is rated R for a reason though despite the brief nudity, it’s quite tame compared to say, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. For a brief while, it was a blissful time for the two lovers, that is until social expectations creep back in to threaten their union. It seems that Emily’s trust in William has always been on shaky ground, as he seems to think there’s something peculiar and even ‘ungodly’ about her poetry. Yet their longing after they’re driven apart feels deeply genuine, thanks to O’Connor’s affecting script and the actors’ poignant performances.
I find it intriguing that the Brontës and Jane Austen’s fathers are both clergymen, though, in Austen’s case, she had a good relationship with her father. At times their writings would be compared to one another’s (much to the chagrin of Charlotte who reportedly was not a fan of Austen’s) but that’s for another discussion. There is an Austen connection to EMILY, however, as writer/director Frances O’Connor played Fanny Price in Austen’s adaptation of Mansfield Park. What’s more interesting is that according to this article, she traced the seed of the idea for this film when she was filming that Austen movie in London back in 1990! One thing for sure, she found the right actress for the part of Emily.
French-British Emma Mackey is exquisite in the title role, an intense and melancholy but sympathetic misfit struggling to break free. This literary heroine remains an enigma as this is O’Connor’s vision of Emily, but still, it gives us a glimpse into what her life would’ve been like under the stifling social conventions adverse to women’s creative power. What a stark difference to the farcical portrayal of Anne Elliot in Persuasion!
I first saw Mackey in Netflix’s Sex Education and later in The Death of the Nile. She’s proven to be quite a versatile actress with a formidable screen presence and while many people always compare her to Australian Margot Robbie due to their uncanny resemblance, I think she too is equally talented. Fionn Whitehead is fun to watch as the spirited Branwell, while Oliver Jackson-Cohen has the dreamy good looks to make hearts aflutter, and the sensitivity to convey William’s conflicted nature. Adrian Dunbar as Emily’s father and Alexandra Dowling as Charlotte provide memorable turns, though here Charlotte’s depiction is a bit too unsympathetic and even mean towards Emily.
EMILY might frustrate Brontë academia and purists for taking plenty of creative liberties. I personally don’t mind a reimagining if it’s done well, and O’Connor has always been open about wanting to tell Emily Brontë’s story in an unconventional fashion. Though the events depicted didn’t actually happen, the film was well-researched and certainly feels true. Appropriately enough, the gothic element of the mask scene where Emily channels her dead mother is genuinely eerie. Filmed in Yorkshire moors, the aesthetic and atmospheric vibe is in line with Wuthering Heights and there’s a haunting quality about it, too, thanks to Nanu Segal‘s beautiful cinematography and the evocative music of Abel Korzeniowski.
I’d add O’Connor to the growing list of talented actor-turned-director and she has a gift behind the camera as well. EMILY could’ve been edited better to be under 2 hours long, but overall it’s a remarkable debut and a handsomely-mounted production despite the small indie budget. It took her over three decades to finally bring her passion project to life, hopefully it won’t take her nearly as long for her next directorial project.
Have you seen EMILY? I’d love to hear what you think!
7 thoughts on “EMILY (2022) review – Emma Mackey is exquisite in the reimagined tale of the ‘strange’ Brontë sister”
This was on my multiplex this weekend but I wasn’t interested as I’ll wait for it on streaming.
I think it’s perfectly fine to watch on streaming. It should be well worth your time, Steven!
I enjoyed this one, and regarding the editing I think the movie was trying to tackle on a lot.
Hi Julian!! Great to hear from you. Glad you enjoyed this one. I agree that this one is an ambitious film, but overall I think Frances O’Connor did a marvelous job!
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