EMILY (2023)

One-line review: Wuthering Heights emerged from Emily Brontë’s lows.

How did the three corseted Brontë sisters, mostly homeschooled and isolated, each write a masterpiece? It cannot just be genes because their brother Branwell didn’t make it despite being ambitious and having all the opportunities. The movie is a mostly fictional account of how and why Emily, the most intriguing among the Brontë sisters, wrote her only novel, Wuthering Heights. Wuthering Heights was a pathbreaking novel that broke all existing conventions of morality (the lead characters have an extramarital affair) and structure (the story is not linear and uses flashbacks). People believed only a man could have written it.

Unfortunately, since Emily died shortly after the book was published, whatever little we know of her is from her sister Charlotte’s sanitized account. But even Charlotte acknowledges Emily’s troubled genius, aversion to social contact, and singular nature. Writer-director and fan Frances O’Connor’s sweeping account of Emily Brontë is so satisfyingly believable. In her TIFF interview (link below), O’Connor says she wrote a story to give Emily her due (people thought she was strange) and wanted to make a film Emily would like to star in or watch. As a result, the film allows our imagination to run riot like Emily’s. 

The film is glorious. Although the moors are like the bass guitar in Wuthering Heights, the reader can only imagine them. The film brings the moors and their magic to life thanks to Nanu Segal’s superb camera work and Abel Korzeniowski’slilting score. The shot of the three sisters joyously running in the rain is what makes watching movies on the big screen worthwhile.  

So how did the frail and sickly Emily write a devastating book like Wuthering Heights? Even the stoic Charlotte breaks down into tears after reading it. We find out that while storytelling is a favorite pastime of the Bronte family, Emily takes it up another notch and is almost psychic. We experience this ourselves in a brilliant scene and realize why it’s easy to think Emily is possessed by evil, an important detail because it causes her much heartbreak all her life. 

But despite being a recluse, Emily roams free in the moors, has access to writing tools, and is joined at the hip with her wayward brother. Although she is socially awkward, Emily is sharp as nails, takes no fools, and wears her heart on her sleeve. But above all, she’s steadfast in her beliefs almost to her detriment. The arrival of the new curate, the young and handsome William Weightman (a splendid Oliver Jackson-Cohen), upends everyone’s peace, especially Emily’s because her father assigns him to teach her French. Doomed love blooms between the two and the seeds for Wuthering Heights are sown.     

The film is powerful because it gives Emily the justice her fans crave. Although Emily’s life is tragically cut short, she lived fully and passionately, never compromised on her beliefs, loved and was loved in return, and eventually wrote a book and saw it published (no mean feat for a woman writer at the time). She’s the candle that flickered brightly and furiously until the end. The chemistry between Emily and Weightman is crackling, like Cate and Heathcliff’s in the book. The film is a cathartic experience for the fans, but even someone unfamiliar with Emily Brontë will come away rooting for these early women libbers fighting an uphill battle with their intellectually inferior gatekeepers.            

But O’Connor’s vision wouldn’t work without Emma Mackey’s soul-baring performance. Playing Emily and plumbing the depths and highs of her emotions must have taken a toll on Mackey. But we are the beneficiaries of Mackey’s toil. Mackey’s defiant face, fighting against her fate and circumstances, stays with us long after the film ends.  

The film is a befitting tribute to its muse.  

The Emily team’s interview at TIFF 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *