Starring Emma Mackey, this passionate biopic mixes fact and fiction to imagine how Emily Brontë conjured up 'Wuthering Heights'.
January 12, 2023
If Emily had been made two or three decades earlier, it might've starred Frances O'Connor, rather than boast the Australian actor-turned-filmmaker as its writer and director. Back in the 90s and 00s, O'Connor played with literary classics in movies such as Mansfield Park and The Importance of Being Earnest, plus a TV version of Madame Bovary. Now, making an accomplished and emotive debut behind the lens, she explores how Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights might've come to be. Is a Kate Bush-inspiring piece of gothic romantic fiction of such passion and yearning — the only one from a writer lost to tuberculosis at the age of just 30 in 1848 — the result of a life touched by both? That's a question that this fictionalised biopic ponders. Emily begins with another query, however, although it's also basically the same question. "How did you write it?" Emily's (Emma Mackey, Death on the Nile) older sister Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling, The Musketeers) demands. "How did you write Wuthering Heights?"
As one Brontë grills another, "I took my pen and put it to paper" is Emily's literal answer, offered as she reclines, pale and not long for this world, alongside printed versions of her now-iconic story. The response provided by the gorgeously shot, impressively acted and deeply moving Emily is far more complicated, but O'Connor's choice to open her movie with this scene and question is both clever and telling. One perspective on great artists, including of words, is to view their work as intertwined with their lives — aka this feature's preferred vantage. A key perspective of Emily, too, is not letting the small amount of detail known about the middle of literature's three Brontë sisters dictate how this story is told. That copy of Wuthering Heights by Emily's side? It bears her name, as does every iteration printed today, but her book wasn't first published under her real moniker — her pen name was Ellis Bell — until two years after her death.
With Emily, O'Connor doesn't just pluck everything from her own imagination, but conceives of context for a novel that still haunts and entrances today. Before she's close to saying farewell, the film's namesake is a shy, sensitive but strong-minded young woman seen as the family black sheep — in her minister father Patrick's (Adrian Dunbar, Line of Duty) eyes, visibly, given that she always comes second to Charlotte and the younger Anne (Amelia Gething, The Spanish Princess), and also further afield. "They call you the strange one," Charlotte advises with exasperation at Emily's demeanour, her penchant for staying home and for fondness for roaming, rolling and falling in green among the wily, windy moors. There's no absence of kindness among the sisters, but Emily's keenest affinity springs with her scampish brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead, Voyagers), an aspiring creative whose attachment to alcohol and opium impacts his dreams.
Into this Yorkshire maelstrom arrives handsome curate William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, The Lost Daughter), instantly winning over Charlotte and Anne with his lyrical sermons and his Valentine's wishes, and the village of Haworth as well, but initially leaving the guarded Emily sceptical. So, when Patrick decrees that William will help with Emily's French lessons, she's reluctant in general — including about their burgeoning connection. In a movie filled with standout scenes so potent that many other flicks would long to possess them, a debate in the Gallic tongue about blind faith proves one of Emily's most electrifying. That said, sparks don't merely fly in verbal discussions, as the frantic but careful attention given to the era's complicated disrobing demonstrates once Emily and William submit to their smouldering attraction.
Teaming up with cinematographer Nanu Segal (A Spy Among Friends) and editor Sam Sneade (The Suspect) — and with strings-fuelled assistance from composer Abel Korzeniowski (The Courier) — O'Connor finds heat and solace against the picture's bucolic backdrop. At its lustiest, Emily never threatens Lady Chatterley's Lover, but it too is earthy, full-hearted and focused on a tactile romance. The impressionistic filmmaking itself evokes the whirlwind of sensations swirling and stirring inside its central figure, whether the movie is cutting to black, deploying handheld camerawork or energetically setting the pace through quick edits. Throw in that often-urgent score, as well as elemental sound design that whirrs with the wind but also knows how to punctuate its emotions with silence, and to watch Emily is to feel as feverish as O'Connor contends that Emily did, or might've, or could've.
It isn't just a compliment to O'Connor to note that she pens and helms a feature she would've once fronted. Such is the now-director's standing as an actor — in a career that's also spanned Love and Other Catastrophes, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, The Hunter, The Conjuring 2, Cleverman and The End — that they're words of praise to Mackey as well. The Sex Education star ripples with intensity even in the stillest and quietest of moments, constantly conveying Emily's ever-churning thoughts and feelings in something as simple but loaded as a pensive gaze. Emily adores peering intently at her face and Mackey is up to the scrutiny, but one of her powerhouse scenes involves Emily donning a mask. Playing a storytelling game, and bringing to mind the origins of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in the process, she spooks Charlotte, Anne, Branwell and William by claiming to be the spirit of the Brontës' dead mother. How symbolic this exchange is, too, laying bare the influence of grief upon the family and displaying what Emily is capable of when she doesn't have to worry about the face she's showing the world.
How wonderful it'd be to see Mackey cast as Catherine in a future adaptation of Wuthering Heights as well, if another soon joins the many past takes — 1939's Oscar-nominee, 1992's Juliette Binoche-led flick and 2011's Andrea Arnold (Cow)-directed one, to name a few — on-screen. For now, though, if there's a misstep in Emily, it's the nods given to the Brontës' speculated sibling rivalry. All three sisters made their mark on the page, and on history — Charlotte is responsible for Jane Eyre, of course, and Anne for Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall — and having them in competition with each other feels reductive. Still, it never undoes the movie, and it does help answer the big early question slung Emily's way. How did she write Wuthering Heights? In a family of sharp, intelligent, talented women, by being utterly and unflinchingly herself.
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