If you’ve ever wondered what inspired Emily Brontë to write Wuthering Heights, you’re not alone – and Frances O’Connor has made a film about it. The actor turns writer-director with the imaginative period drama Emily, premiering at Toronto International Film Festival. Sex Education star Emma Mackey puts in a spirited performance in a feminist, revisionist spin on a much-loved author.
We meet Emily along with her sisters Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) and Anne (Amelia Gething), when their happy but sheltered existence is enlivened by the arrival of a new parish priest, Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). It’s hard to know which sister he fancies the most, and this uncertainty keeps both audience and Brontes guessing. When a romance develops, it’s intense and invariably heartbreaking – perhaps a little too tragic in its design, with one contrivance too many. Nonetheless, O’Connor’s film is very entertaining as it elaborates on the broad known outline of Brontë’s life, adding speculative contemporary color. Emily’s devotion to her brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead) isn’t especially surprising, but this also imagines that she was just as rebellious as him, taking opium and getting a tattoo. O’Connor portrays the patriarchy as one the many tragedies of Emily’s life: she’s educated but confined by the gender traditions of the 1840s. One of the most memorable moments sees Emily in a sort-of séance that either demonstrates her acting abilities, or her psychic powers: it’s a strikingly dramatic scene that’s open to interpretation.
Whether Emily is running across the windswept Yorkshire moors or playfully spying on the neighbors, this hints at the origins of Cathy and Heathcliff, without making characters carbon copies of them. The writer is also presented as painfully shy in public, and it’s here that the luminous Mackey feels like a less natural fit. Perhaps her casting is all part of the wish fulfilment: this is an Emily that young Brontë devotees might aspire to as well as relate to.
At over two hours, the film feels a little too long, but it gives an involving perspective on Brontë’s interior life, exploring themes such as gender, independence, creativity, mental health and sexuality. It will probably play best to romantic Brontë fans – but as you know, dear reader, there are plenty of those.