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film review

Emma Mackey as Emily Brontë in the biopic Emily.Michael Wharley/Courtesy of Sphere Films

  • Emily
  • Written and directed by Frances O’Connor
  • Starring Emma Mackey, Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Fionn Whitehead
  • Classification N/A; 130 minutes
  • Opens in select theatres Feb. 24

The life of Emily Brontë, the dark horse middle sister of the literary triumvirate, does rather lend itself to speculative biography. From where, in that spinsterly existence in an isolated Yorkshire parsonage, did all the passion and melodrama of Wuthering Heights emerge?

Those contemptuous of the theory that Emily had some kind of incestuous relationship with her dissolute brother Branwell may not be better pleased by Frances O’Connor’s new biopic Emily. To explain the origins of the writer’s only novel, O’Connor introduces a sexy young curate with predictable consequences.

Assistant to the Brontës’ father Patrick, William Weightman was a real person, a handsome man who is observed in contemporary reports flirting with the local ladies including the youngest Brontë sister, Anne, who may have had some kind of relationship with him. However, there is no historical evidence for the affair depicted here, a torrid encounter between Emma Mackey’s Emily and the conflicted curate portrayed by Oliver Jackson-Cohen, drawn in despite his religious scruples. As a plot device, it may not give enough credit to Emily Brontë's remarkable literary imagination – they call it fiction because it’s made up – but it does make for a psychologically absorbing costume drama.

The film is Frances O’Connor’s directorial debut.Courtesy of Sphere Films

Still, a hot romance is not this film’s prime achievement. Rather, what stands out is Mackey and her director’s portrait of Emily as a painfully shy and yet aggressively eccentric person in a society with little room for creative women. Today, we might speculate that Emily (as portrayed here) was on the autism spectrum; in O’Connor’s script her contemporaries call her “the strange one.” She prefers not to meet new people and, attempting to join her sister Charlotte as a school teacher, she winds up hiding from her pupils in a closet.

In Mackey’s hands she is oddly intense in ways that can embarrass others – or destabilize them, the characteristic that does explain Weightman’s actions, even if Emily herself is so timid the affair’s consummation seems a stretch. In one of the strongest scenes, Emily puts on a mask and channels her dead mother to the increasing discomfort of Weightman and her siblings.

Mackey is particularly well supported by Fionn Whitehead as the bohemian Branwell, the son to whom too much has been given and of whom too much expected. Creating a glib charmer, Whitehead reveals the artistic personality that rejoices in more enthusiasm than talent and, as life fails to deliver any success, gives Branwell’s descent into alcohol and opium the weight of tragic inevitability. He is also a useful character for O’Connor because he illustrates the physical and intellectual licence the brother enjoys in marked contrast to the sister (although you will have to forgive a rather silly scene where he encourages her to yell “Freedom in thought” at the Yorkshire moors.)

Purists are not going to be pleased with the historical liberties O’Connor takes with her ending.Courtesy of Sphere Films

Alexandra Dowling as older sister Charlotte is also notable, creating a well-observed maternal figure both caring and envious, generous in her best moments, pinched and judgmental in her worst. And, of course, there is no shortage of sweeping views over the chilly moors, thanks to cinematographer Nanu Segal.

Purists are not going to be pleased with the historical liberties O’Connor takes with her ending, mixing up the publication history of the Brontë novels so that Emily can see her work published under own name in her lifetime and inspire older sister Charlotte to finally put pen to paper. (In reality one Ellis Bell published Wuthering Heights a few months after Charlotte, also writing under a pseudonym, had produced Jane Eyre.) But for the rest of us this fantasy does offer the satisfaction of witnessing the short-lived triumph of a fascinating character.