Emily (Bleecker Street, R)

Everyone knows about Wuthering Heights, but how much do you know about its author? If you’re like me, probably not all that much: she lived with her siblings and father on a parsonage in Haworth, Yorkshire; like her sisters Charlotte and Anne, she published under a male pseudonym; premature death came frequently to her family, and Emily was no exception, dying, at home,  at the age of 30. The only known portrait of her, painted by her brother Branwell, shows a pale young woman with brown hair and grey eyes—but to base too much on this scant visual evidence, as some have done with a single daguerrotype of Emily Dickinson, would be foolish.

Still, when an author produces a work as revolutionary as Wuthering Heights, it’s natural to want to know more about her. And since there’s little in the historical record to go on, what we’re left with is works of the imagination. Frances O’Connor’s Emily is just such a work—it’s not a biopic and it doesn’t claim fidelity to verifiable historical truths so much as to emotional and artistic truths. Does it capture the spirit of the real Emily Brontë? We’ll never know for sure, but I’m coming down on the side of yes, because while I don’t agree with every decision made by the director, she’s created a coherent film that could have been Emily’s story, and she gets the big, important things right.

We first meet Emily Brontë (Emma Mackey) as she is near death, tended by her sister Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling), who asks her about writing Wuthering Heights. Most of the rest of the film is an extended flashback, beginning with Emily as a young adult returning to the family home after school graduation. There’s a new man in town—assistant curate William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen)—who’s handsome and charming and turning a whole lot of heads among the young ladies of the town. Not Emily, though, who she seems to be determined to resist his charms. Whatever she may feel about Weightman, she’s more determined to assert her independence, and that’s something the daughters of country parsons didn’t get to do all that often.

Emily shows more of her independence and lack of respect for boundaries in a scene in which she, her siblings, and Weightman play a game in which one person holds a Noh mask to their face and does an imitation of someone, and the others have to guess who. Emily claims to be the ghost of her dead mother, creeping everyone else out, and apparently provoking a supernatural response—or what we see on screen represents the power of her imagination to make others see what she sees.

As young adults, Emily and Charlotte aren’t the greatest of pals, but Emily and Branwell (Fionn Whitehead) are much closer. Both are artistically ambitious and both like to be a little bit naughty, as when they (as adults) play a silly game of gawking in people’s windows, then running away when they’re spotted. This is baffling on two scores: first, they’re not doing anything particularly clever, and second, in so small a community they’re almost certain to get caught. Which they do, and which has more consequences for Branwell than for Emily. It’s one of several scenes in this film that suggest that Emily might have had more than a bit to do with Branwell’s downward spiral.

Family patriarch Patrick Brontë (Adrian Dunbar) suggests Weightman tutor Emily in French, and one thing leads to another. Before you know it, they’re engaged in a relationship that would be risky in any age, but particularly so in a provincial Victorian community and in the absence of effective birth control. Then he breaks it off, devastating Emily, who decides to pour her energies into writing a novel. The rest, of course, is history.

There’s a lot of story in Emily (O’Connor also wrote the screenplay), but the details aren’t really the point:  this film is more of an emotional portrait of a young woman who, despite constrained circumstances, had a wild inner life. Nanu Segal’s cinematography plays a key role in the film’s success, capturing both the freedom and natural beauty of the Yorkshire hills and the constraints implicit in respectable interior spaces. Against all odds, Emily Brontë chose not to deny herself and take up the expected life of a respectable woman of her day, but to ignore social conventions in her private life, then be equally revolutionary in writing one of the great works of English literature. | Sarah Boslaugh

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