REVIEW: WUTHER TRUE OR FALSE, ‘EMILY’ WEAVES A PASSIONATE PORTRAIT OF A BRONTË SISTER
28th Feb, 2023
Los Angeles Times by Justin Chang
“Wuthering Heights” was first published in 1847 under the name Ellis Bell — a pseudonym for Emily Brontë, of course, and one that she adopted in tandem with her sisters Charlotte and Anne, in their individual novels as well as a book of poetry. “Jane Eyre” was published under Currer Bell; “Agnes Grey,” printed in the same three-volume set as “Wuthering Heights,” was attributed to Acton Bell. The Brontë sisters’ names and reputations would be established soon enough, but their use of male aliases was a not-uncommon safeguard in an era when female writers struggled to be taken seriously.
“Emily,” a passionate and imaginative new drama about the author’s short life and enduring work, deftly waves aside this and many other details: When we see Emily (a superb Emma Mackey) cracking open the first edition of her one and only novel, it proudly bears her actual name. Whether this is an act of feminist reclamation or simply an expository shortcut, it suits a movie that delights in hurling caution and historical fidelity to the Yorkshire wind.
Written and directed by the Australian actor Frances O’Connor, making a vibrant feature filmmaking debut, it will surely madden sticklers for accuracy, which is all to the good. Those who demand strict conformity, at least in this absorbing and unapologetic fiction, are precisely the kind of people the fiercely independent-minded Emily can barely stand.
The list of people she can stand is admittedly a short one. It would include her younger sister, Anne (Amelia Gething), gentle, kind and possessed of literary gifts that go sadly unexplored here, and their brother, Branwell (an excellent Fionn Whitehead), whose own wild artistic temperament and gregarious spirit are gradually subsumed by alcoholism and opium addiction.
Less tolerable but still grudgingly granted a place in Emily’s affections is her older sister, Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling), who’s prim and well behaved in all the ways that Emily is withdrawn and rebellious. Charlotte is studying to be a teacher and urges Emily to do the same, the better to please their father, Patrick (Adrian Dunbar), a rector in their home village of Haworth.
But the Brontë sisters’ true talent is for writing poetry and fiction, and “Emily,” which begins in bitterness and sorrow but ends in grace, is very much about the triumphant unstifling of that gift.
In contrast with earlier portraits of the Brontë trio like “Devotion” (1946), which starred Ida Lupino as Emily and Olivia de Havilland as Charlotte, or André Téchiné’s French-language “The Brontë Sisters” (1979), it singles out Emily as the driving force in a movie rife with artistic potential.
It’s Emily who refuses to relinquish the childhood stories that so captivated their youthful imaginations, even after Charlotte and Anne have long moved on. Preferring her fictional characters to any outside company, she retreats into a creative and social cocoon.
As Charlotte furiously informs her early on, the town gossips refer to Emily as “the Strange One.” And the movie, casting its heroine in a light at once sympathetic and fearsome, does not entirely dispute this characterization. Strangeness becomes Emily, and it also suits Mackey (“Sex Education,” “Death on the Nile”), who has the kind of flinty, strikingly modern gaze that was made to cut through pretensions and pieties.
The camera (wielded by director of photography Nanu Segal) has an unnerving habit of locking Emily center frame, allowing her and us no escape. Seated quietly in a pew at church, her dark hair concealed by a bonnet and her eyes cast downward, she affects a posture suggestive less of prayer than of defiance. Freely wandering the wind-battered moors, her eyes taking in her surroundings and her hair now flowing past her shoulders, she is a woman liberated, wholly if momentarily at one with a gloriously untamed world.
O’Connor, an actor who’s chafed against corsets herself in such films as “Mansfield Park” (1999), is to some extent making a stealth adaptation of the already much-adapted “Wuthering Heights,” insofar as “Emily” is a (mostly) subtle record of that novel’s inspirations.
The air is charged with melodrama and even a touch of madness. The candlelight flickers menacingly within the house’s shadowy interiors (sparely appointed by production designer Steve Summersgill). Emily’s fascination with death — and, more specifically, with her mother’s untimely passing years earlier — turns a tense family drama into a brooding Victorian ghost story, set to the operatic churn of Abel Korzeniowski’s score.
But it is also, by necessity, a thrillingly ill-fated romance, something that seems inevitable the moment a dashing young curate, William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), sets foot in the Brontës’ parish. William’s own poetic gifts and not-inconsiderable good looks quickly set Charlotte’s and Anne’s hearts aflutter, though the skeptical Emily initially regards him more or less as Lizzie Bennett did Mr. Darcy. We know how that turned out, and once William begins tutoring Emily in French — never the best distraction from those pesky latent desires — it isn’t long before they’ve surrendered to a love beyond verbs, seen in a flurry of rumpled sheets and writhing limbs.
Even without that playfully bawdy montage, Brontë historians would likely object most strongly to this particular narrative liberty, armed with the widespread belief that it was Anne Brontë, not Emily, who was the object of Weightman’s affections. To these eyes, however, the potential problem has less to do with historical inaccuracy than artistic reductiveness. “Write what you know” is splendid advice, but it can also perpetuate an unfortunate canard, namely that great literary accomplishment can be born only of direct, autobiographical experience.
“Emily” may not entirely escape this assumption, though the intensity of Emily and William’s bond — which is to say, the heat and conviction that Mackey and Jackson-Cohen bring to their performances — is its own vindication.
And O’Connor is shrewd enough to root the emotional core of “Wuthering Heights” in more than just a torrid speculative romance. If William is the Heathcliff to Emily’s Cathy, then so, in his way, is Branwell, something the movie establishes with early scenes of brother and sister mischievously spying on their neighbors.
The intensity of their love, and of their shared alienation from their family and the outside world, is its own force of nature, even when Branwell commits an act of sibling betrayal that falls far short of brothering heights.
The tension and resilience of sibling bonds is crucial to the meaning of “Emily,” which may isolate and elevate its heroine but ultimately restores her to a place of intimacy within a family she loved and inspired.
Her alternately tense and tender rapport with Charlotte, whom Dowling invests with intricate layers of disdain and sympathy, is especially moving in that regard. At one point, Charlotte cruelly dismisses “Wuthering Heights” as “an ugly book … full of selfish people who only care for themselves.” It’s another liberty; the real-life Charlotte, though a frequent critic and arbiter of her sisters’ published work, was hardly blind to the beauty of Emily’s masterpiece. The same can be said of O’Connor’s movie. Far from suggesting that art imitated life, it ends with the bracing suggestion that the Brontës, like any of us, could scarcely appreciate one without the other.