EMILY begins with its titular character, Emily Brontë (Emma Mackey) swooning. It’s a cleverly deceptive beginning to the story of a 19th-century rebel, and of the inspirations for her masterpiece of gothic fiction, Wuthering Heights. As played by Mackey, with an immersive and experiential script by screenwriter, Frances O’Connor, Emily is anything but the delicate, retiring creature the Victorian era expected its women to be. It’s her very headstrong nature of barely quelled petulance that drove her to the extremes (by those Victorian standards) that ultimately took their toll on her psyche and her health. Passionate, intelligent, and endlessly imaginative, she is here presented in all her contradictions with tantalizing speculations on what may have been suppressed in those personal letters she tasked her sisters to burn upon her death.
Repression is a key part of Emily’s upbringing by her stern clergyman father (Adrian Dunbar), though sexual repression is less the issue than the absolute obedience owed him despite his penchant for disapproving of anything smacking of individuality. Emily also absorbs the slights of the favored sister, Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling), a paradigm of filial duty, by embarking on wild adventures with her equally wild, though more dissipated brother, Branwell (Fionn Whitehead), the model for Wuthering Heights‘ brooding Heathcliff. Branwell of the failed art career and addictions to vices that shock the rural parish their father serves, and that intrigue Emily with their forbidden nature and her absolute devotion to her brother.
Disruption arrives in the person of the new curate, William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) assigned to their parish, with whom Emily establishes a tempestuous relationship by preferring to speak her mind on matter theological and giggling in an opiate-induced state during sermons. There is nothing rom-com about their relationship. These are people confronted with mutual anathema whose strong feelings, in this isolated West Yorkshire location and limited social contacts, turns into something both unexpected and somehow inevitable.
O’Connor uses images and, most effectively, her characters faces, to explore the complex emotional lives of these people. When dialogue is used, it is as much what is unsaid, or better, the subtext of the words, that establishes what is happening. Watching Emily observe a houseguest simpering to her male companions during a country walk is a wonder of contempt barely concealed beneath her architecturally imposing bonnet, and an equally wondrous contemplation of the male-female dynamic more universally.
Mackey is a force to be reckoned with her hair that never quite acquiesces to the era’s styling requirements, the demeanor never quite conforming to the blank pleasantness expected of her gender. Even when Emily is submitting to her father’s will, there is nothing docile at work. It is a personality that transcends wearing a mask during a parlor game that turns as gothic and chilling as anything in Emily’s writing. And yet, it is the curious stillness that proves the most solid expression of the force of her personality. This is a woman sure in her decisions, and finding difficulty only when trying to be something she’s not in order to please that disapproving father, or discovering that a beloved sister is not an staunchly steadfast as Emily herself is in sibling devotion. It is her one weakness, bemusing her into worry about what other people think. Don’t worry. She recovers magnificently She can also be cruel, cutting like a scalpel when truth is required, testing us when she delivers a searing opinion to an achingly vulnerable Branwell about his latest artistic endeavor, only to later gently embrace his corpse in a scene that belies its disquieting nature with a melancholy sweetness of two souls so alike separated forever.
That stillness is reflected in O’Connor’s choices throughout. The colors and mise-en-scenes are as orderly as a period painting would have demanded. It is a milieu of etiquette and appearances subversively turned upside down by the filmmaker and her leading character. Visual metaphor is a potent element, furthering and heightening the story, as in a scene where Branwell, banished from the family home for his indiscretions, bids farewell to Emily but refuses to allow her to see him. The description of how he does this lessens its artistry, but as a foreshadowing of their fates, of Emily’s inability to see her brother for what he is, it is as dazzling as it is poetic.
EMILY ponders the question of where art comes from and answers it partially with the life story of Ms. Bronte. But O’Conner has also put the riddle of that answer into that character’s mouth. When asked where Wuthering Heights came from, she replies that she put pen to paper. A simple answer, and an accurate one, but not a complete one. For that, Frances O’Connor has provided context and speculation that fascinates and intrigues. How perfect.