Emily Brontë's short life has remained largely elusive, with her work on 'Wuthering Heights' largely left to speak for her. Frances O'Connor makes a solid directorial and writing debut with 'Emily' (2022), a mixed work of fact and fiction on Emily Brontë's years leading up to penning the novel and her early death.
O'Connor showcases Emily's (Emma Mackey) largely strained relationship with her family and the new clergy in town, William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). She contests her sisters Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) and Anne (Amelia Gething) who frown on her childishness and fixation on the imaginary. The sequences I most adored from the film come from Mackey's Emily and Fionn Whitehead's Branwell Brontë, as the siblings spur each other on as rebels and the black sheeps of the family, yelling "freedom in thought" across tumbling landscapes and into fiery winds.
The casting by Fiona Weir is excellent and really works in the characters' world of a period drama. Emma Mackey gets the chance to show her prowess as a leading lady. Frances O'Connor does commit to the aesthetics without any 20th-century twist, which I appreciate! The characters actually look like they do not know what Apple Pay or what an ATM is, compared to those in this year's 'Persuasion' (2022, Netflix) adaption. The movie holds gothic tones like 'Wuthering Heights', with a particularly spooky scene involving a creepy mask, Emily's wild imagination and an almost possession of her dead mother.
Brontë fans, however, may or may not be pleased with the liberties Frances O'Connor has taken with spinning a story around the little-known facts about real Emily's life, including her relationship with Weightman. Jackson-Cohen and Mackey bring fantastic performances spilling with chemistry and sexiness in their forbidden relationship. I adored their electric on-screen chemistry with romantic developments.
However, their relationship never existed in real life – the real Weightman was recorded to be romantically involved with Emily's sister Anne - and O'Connor implies that Emily's creative process leading up to her novel was based on a man... which might not gel well with fans looking for a historically accurate Emily Brontë. The film completely hinges on their affair and pushes aside Emily's relationship with her sisters or development as an author for a fictional narrative about her tryst with a man. The film never commits to historical accuracies, with Emily publishing her novel under her real name (in reality she had to use a pen name) and the implication that her success then inspired her sister to write 'Jane Eyre'.
The film never commits to historical accuracies.
The cinematography by Nanu Segal, while occasionally drowned out by the stylish desaturated colour grade, is gorgeous and personal with enchantingly composed shots. The open rolling fields and close intimate shots between Weightman and Emily alike are handled with care. The only large setback I found was the distracting stylised editing, pulling back the story instead of advancing it; launching into jarring territory with constant awkward cuts to black and cross-fading. Coupled with the lengthy runtime, 'Emily' struggles to maintain its pace at moments.
'Emily' is a great directorial debut for Frances O'Connor and a chance for Emma Mackey to shine and show her acting prowess. While both invigorating and draggy, it's a great addition to both their filmographies as an emerging director and actor respectively.