In the opening moments of actor-turned-director Frances O’Connor’s clever, passionate, period fantasy-drama Emily, Charlotte Brontë (Alexandra Dowling) demands of her ailing sister Emily (Emma Mackey) “How did you write Wuthering Heights“? It’s a question that an unsteady Emily, the most fiery yet reclusive of the famed Brontë sisters, can hardly answer to her satisfaction. O’Connor, no stranger herself to romanticized period dramas (such as Mansfield Park and The Importance of Being Earnest), sets out to answer that question by giving Emily the love story she was never able to experience during her short life.
Seeing as we know so little about Emily other than what we can glean through her writing, it opens the door for O’Connor and Mackey to create their own vision for the young author. Springboarding from Charlotte’s query, the story is mostly told in flashback as Emily recounts everything that led to her writing Wuthering Heights. Chalk it up to literary elaboration or perhaps Emily’s fevered state of mind as she succumbs to the effects of tuburculosis, but every emotion, every experience, every relationship, is heightened.
While O’Connor doesn’t stress the strained relationship between the Brontë women, who are living under the watchful eye of their conservative, widowed father, she doesn’t ignore them, either. Charlotte is the strict, motherly sister who imagines herself a creative foil to Emily, who is flighty and silly and seen a misfit among the locals. Youngest sister Anne (Amelia Gething) takes on a familiar innocence, while artistic, drug-addicted brother Bramwell (Fionn Whitehead) is seen as Emily’s closest confidante. Emily’s most important connection in the film is also the most fictionalized; a short-lived romance with new curate William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who is believed to have actually won the heart of young Anne.
Emily is no simple revisionist biopic that O’Connor shoehorns modern themes and opinions into need. O’Connor is clearly having a ball, giving Emily the agency that our image of her as a sickly, tragic figure denies. Mackey is tremendous as the fiery, talented Emily, who is nonetheless torn by William’s indecisive treatment of her. Along with a keen use of natural light and environment to recreate the shadowy turbulence of Wuthering Heights, Emily is a bold, confident debut for O’Connor the filmmaker. In a surprisingly effective turn towards gothic horror, O’Connor has Emily conjure up the angry spirit of a dead loved one during a seemingly innocent game. While the turn towards supernatural also conjures up aspects of Wuthering Heights and even Jane Eyre, it smartly recalibrates our understanding of Emily. Is she truly dealing with something otherworldly, or does she just believe that to be the case?
Perhaps because Emily’s life was cut so short (like practically everyone in this story, actually), the film feels very truncated like there are chapters torn from the pages of a book. But Emily does the eponymous Wuthering Heights author justice, using fantasy to cement her place as a trailblazer against the Romanticism of the period. With Mackey breathing such life into Emily Brontë that we truly feel we know her, and O’Connor breaking free of the genre’s usual confines, Emily is easy to fall head over heels for.
Emily is in select theaters now, opens in DC on February 24th.