Emily movie review: The passionate side to Emily Bronte

Frances O’Connor is not unfamiliar with a period production.

From Mansfield Park and Mr Selfridge to The Importance of Being Earnest and Madame Bovary, the Australian actor and now filmmaker knows something about capturing a different time – and wearing a bonnet.

But in Emily, it’s less about capturing a moment and more about capturing an unknowable person.

Very little is known about Emily Bronte, the author of the passionate novel Wuthering Heights. Her seemingly introverted and relatively isolated pastoral life in 19th century England didn’t scream lusty, forbidden love affair.

Historically, what little we know of Bronte has been curated by her sister Charlotte after the writer’s death, which gives O’Connor, in her feature directorial debut Emily, a lot of creative licence to tell a story about the woman who wrote one of western literature’s most famous tomes.

Who was this woman, who wrote so sharply about two people’s insatiable desire for each other? In transferring some of the intoxicating characteristics of Bronte’s novel to Bronte’s life story, O’Connor, who also wrote the screenplay, has drawn a literary hero with an animated and rich inner life.

The captivating Emily is not a biopic in any traditional sense, but then the Emily Bronte who inhabits its scenes is not a traditional character.

Starring Sex Education’s Emma Mackey as the titular Bronte, the film frames Emily’s story with the moment of her death. Frenzied and desperate to know, Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) demands Emily tell her how she wrote Wuthering Heights, how did she conjure Cathy and Heathcliff and their hunger.

It’s a smart set-up because it links the creator with her creation, asking the audience to invest in this core question.

Flashing back through Emily’s life, from the time she was at school with her “dangerous” imagination, making up fanciful tales which scares her older sister, who is much too concerned about reputation and what others will think.

Sent home after a failed attempt to become a schoolteacher, Emily is lost. She has no purpose to her life, only marginally more grounded than her ne’er do well brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead).

When her father (Adrian Dunbar) arranges French lessons with his new curate William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Emily and William form a bond. First, it’s a stolen look, a graze of the hand. And then it’s assignations in an abandoned cottage, bodies sensually entwined as if nothing else existed outside of that moment.

By coupling this fictionalised affair (there is nothing to suggest that Bronte and Weightman were ever lovers) with Wuthering Heights, O’Connor is spinning a handsome and emotionally honest tale that could be pure fiction, but it’s a compelling one.

And Mackey’s appealing performance, a combination of defiance, depth and vulnerability, brings to life an obscured literary figure.

Rating: 3.5/5

Emily is in cinemas from Thursday, January 12

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