Emily Review: Emma Mackey shines in a revisionist Brontë biopic

TIFF: Frances O’Connor makes her directorial debut with this gorgeous, surely revisionist biopic about the author of Wuthering Heights.

Although Emily Brontë wrote one of the most rugged and enduring novels in English literature before her 30th – and final – birthday, she spent her entire life in a suffocating environment that dampened her brilliant imagination at every turn. It was tempered by the patriarchy who feared her talent (“Wuthering Heights” was published under a pseudonym, of course), by the single men who knew her personally, and sometimes even by her own sisters, two of whom survived infancy to become accomplished writers yourself. Justifying as it may be that Brontë’s one great book is still widely read some 200 years later, her remarkable victory over death pales in comparison to the poetic irony of her legacy: few authors of any age have the public imagination so compelled by mere fact inflames their existence.

In that light, it’s easy to see why Brontë’s life lends itself so naturally to the kind of film that longtime actor (“Mansfield Park,” “Bedazzled,” “AI”) and first-time filmmaker Frances O’Connor has made about her in Emily, a ravishing period drama that plays with facts quickly and loosely to paint a portrait of the author bled with the same heart-in-hands emotionality she’s had to infuse into her work .

Of course, Brontë’s blank screen appeal won’t stop purists from poking fun at O’Connor’s Gen Z-friendly decision to cast “Sex Education” star Emma Mackey in the title role (a brilliant idea, it turns out). And those same people will surely be upset by her melodramatic vision of how literature’s most famous middle child came to write “Wuthering Heights” — not least because it involves doping opium and blowing the most attractive new member perform the Yorkshire clergy, while Abel Korzeniowski’s swirling violin score goes utterly wild across the soundtrack.

But such made-up splashes of rebellion and romance only add to the ecstatic truth that “Emily” brings to its windswept tale of a foolish woman who survived through her inner strength. They’re all the more agreeable in a film that eschews (for the most part) the presenteeism that has become so en vogue in Victorian-era adaptations, and resists the urge to go full “Shakespeare in Love” in its insinuation that Brontë is a bit ” Wuthering Heights” before she penned it.

And yet it is reasonable to assume that Brontë really did project some of her own suffering onto the tragic saga of Heathcliff and his Catherine, especially given that her life experience was so limited. The problem for a film like Emily – and the insurmountable challenge that confronts O’Connor’s understated but delicately rendered screenplay – is that its very existence implies that someone is already turning Brontë’s life into an immortal work of genius has resonating with many of the same ideas. There’s no harm in highlighting her story for a new generation, or reigniting the embers of someone who burned too bright for this world, but even a film as impressive and well-assembled as this can’t help but feel like a shadow of to feel a shadow. It traces the silhouette of “The Strange One” without ever reaching the emotionality it takes to feel her touch firsthand.

Still, it’s a real pleasure to watch him try. Much of this stems from the film’s vision of Emily herself, starting with the writer on her deathbed (“How did you write ‘Wuthering Heights’?” her older sister asks) and then going back in time to answer the question to answer why a super-repressed introvert – stranded on the moon’s surface, mourning the loss of her mother and two eldest siblings, and denied any chance to pursue her passions – might be inspired to write something that reflects the harshness of Victorian life . This might not be the biggest mystery in the world, but O’Connor’s film shudders beautifully with the shock of Brontë’s time.

It’s clear from the start that Emily is as lost in her family as she is in her thoughts. Her older sister Charlotte (an appropriately pinched Alexandra Dowling) is the apple of her father’s eye, her younger sister Anne (Amelia Gething) is still just a cutesy figure in the house, and her older brother Branwell (“Dunkirk” lead Fionn Whitehead) is straight enough shit to get the rest of the family’s attention. But Emily has her stories, and – without getting too specific – there is no doubt that she can see all sorts of powerful energies swirling in all directions through the moors surrounding the Brontë house. It’s testament to cinematographer Nanu Segal that the film’s Caravaggio-like interiors articulate those fleeting auras with the same intensity as the stunning shots of the landscape beyond.

The first hour of O’Connor’s leisurely film (good pace to the end of the endgame) does a brilliant job of establishing how Emily found solace in her siblings and also how she felt alienated from them. she is different, sure – as we see in a virtuoso montage of her short, difficult stint at a school far from home – but hardly the kind of Wednesday Addams-esque proto-goth her vicar father might want to hide in the attic. The film’s most memorable scene gets to the heart of the matter (while also hinting at the bleeding heartache of Mackey’s beautiful performance), when a masked guessing game ends with Emily channeling the Brontës’ dead mother so well we almost believe she is obsessed. Anne and Charlotte love their sister, but they are also afraid for her; they share the depth of their pain but struggle to comprehend the impetuous pain of its expression.

Branwell has a slightly better understanding of what makes Emily tick, but the sympathetic energy between them betrays a painful desire as Emily begins to swoon over the handsome new cleric her father brought from the big city. Emily rolls her eyes at William Weightman’s (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) early sermons about how “God Stands in the Rain” and whatnot, but such poor writing can only do so much to hide the poetic soul behind it, and it is only a matter of time before her lengthy unsubtitled French lessons — body language master classes and jagged eyelashes — lead to a different breed of unsubtitled French lessons.

We never believe William is worthy of Emily, but O’Connor never really asks us to. What matters is that he fuels her zest for life, even if he’s afraid of the “ungodly” talent that their clandestine dates help tease out of her. Suffice it to say that Emily isn’t the only one who has become cruel from her fright; While everyone around her fears the woman she will become, she is petrified of the woman she is meant to be. “Emily” finally constructs a domino-like sequence of tragedies from this separation, which mirrors “Wuthering Heights” in the broadest strokes without bordering on a déjà-vu. It’s sad and well-arranged, even if withered by the palpable sense that a truly magnificent work of art lurks just over the horizon.

Grade B

Emily premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Bleecker Street will distribute it in the United States.

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https://www.indiewire.com/2022/09/emily-review-emma-mackey-1234760410/ Emily Review: Emma Mackey shines in a revisionist Brontë biopic

Lindsay Lowe

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