Emily is the loosely factual, but emotionally satisfying life story of possibly the most famous author to ever publish only one novel. While first time writer-director Frances O’Connor’s version of events revises a lot of facts and relationships to make for a more satisfying drama, there’s plenty to praise here outside the strict period piece and literary biopic guidelines. More interested in the psychology of someone who would write a tome as bleak, uncompromising, and wildly ahead of its time as Wuthering Heights, O’Connor’s interpretation of the life and times of Emily Brontë plays more like a nuanced family drama than a straightforward biography of a posthumously celebrated author, and the results are all the better for it.
Emily, played by Sex Education standout Emma Mackey, grew up in a family of literary royalty, but the film plays out in a period before any of them sniffed a degree of success. Seen as the lesser of her widowed revered father’s two middle children, Emily struggles to carve out an identity of her own. The eldest, Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling), is the perceived golden child; a picture of modesty, manners, piety, and intelligence. She’s also depicted here as an arrogant, know it all bully towards Emily and youngest daughter Anne (Amelia Gething), telling them to stop writing silly fantasies in their free time, lest they embarrass the family with their frivolity. Emily does, however, have two supporters that help her navigate a life filled with loss, professional setbacks, and familial oppression. One is her brother, Branwell (Fionn Whitehead), a student of the arts, writer, and overall rebellious spirit with a troubling drug habit. The other is William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the new young preacher in town who’s assisting Emily’s dad (Adrian Dunbar) with her French studies. Emily develops a romantic attachment to William, but his religion and her family constantly block their chance for a lasting happiness.
Emily is a heavily fictionalized take on the Brontë clan, mixing fact and speculation with original flourishes of fantasy. There are some flashes of postmodernism, particularly with regards to a lot of O’Connor’s dialogue and some borderline surreal sequences, but for the most part Emily plays things straight ahead like a respectful period piece. While the second half of the film that moves further in the direction of a gothic romance is less successful than the set-up, Emily remains a sturdy, thoughtful, and engaging character piece. The title of the film might be Emily, but the familial dynamic at play provides a lot of fertile territory for a satisfying story to take root.
It’s hard to describe what would make the daughter of such a high profile family write a novel described by her own older sister – and many critics of the time – as “base, ugly, and full of selfish people who only care about themselves.” Given the oppression of women during Emily Brontë’s all too short lifetime, that pondering all comes back to the people surrounding the author. O’Connor depicts Emily Brontë as a woman marked by tragedy who refused to remain stoic through it all. Her darker sensibilities take root via sibling rivalry, religious oppression, watching the health of loved ones fading away before her eyes, and sometimes just flat out terrible fortune. She is influenced by her hard working father, but shares few of his ideals. She is shaped by her constant squabbles with Charlotte, but remains amazed by her older sister’s focus and determination. A rebellious streak of is imbued in her by her brother, but she can only follow him so far towards the edge of the cliff he’s destined to go over. Emily finds love, but in a person that could never truly reciprocate those feelings. Each of these relationships is formative, fitting together like pieces of a puzzle, and O’Connor’s alternatively witty and stark script dives into these partnerships in philosophically and psychologically interesting ways.
While O’Connor’s material is highly accomplished, Emily does find itself bogged down by a handful of first time director jitters. The pacing of O’Connor’s direction is overly taut, with actions sometimes far too quickly escalating instead of allowing them to breathe and resonate beyond the surface. There are a few sequences – admittedly well executed, though they are – that deviate wildly from the overall tone set forth, which might have landed better if the film’s romance was slightly more captivating and less predictable on the whole. There’s also some narrative choppiness as a result of skittish editorial decisions, but nothing that ever threatens to derail the overall effectiveness of Emily.
Throughout, Mackey’s highly empathetic and finely detailed performance as Emily Brontë remains O’Connor’s biggest pillar of strength, further cementing the star’s status as a rising talent to keep an eye on. Mackey depicts Emily as someone fully willing to engage with the casual cruelty and moral dilemmas that constantly encircle her family, demanding that her voice be heard even if she knows it’s likely to be ignored. Mackey makes sure that Emily’s unique sense of poise and prose is able to shine through even though she hardly ever puts pen to paper before the latter stages of the film. Mackey’s performance is constantly at a steady simmer, just waiting for the moments where Emily has to let off steam, something most brilliantly exhibited in the films’s best scene: a French lesson that turns into a heated theological discussion.
Some purists might bristle at the dramatic treatment of of these historical figures (the sympathy shown towards Branwell, turning Charlotte into a villain), but those in the mood for an intricately crafted character study won’t be let down by Emily. It has the power to hold the biggest impact with those unfamiliar with the work of the Brontës or avid readers who care more about what’s on the page than what happens outside of it. It’s a unique and daring film about an equally unique and daring talent.
Emily opens in Canadian theatres on Friday, February 24, 2023.
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