A biopic of Emily Bronte is a dicey proposition. It’s certainly an alluring topic, given that Bronte wrote a defining work of Gothic period romance. And of course Bronte’s sisters — Charlotte and Ann — turned out to be hugely influential genre authors in their own right. Tempting as it is to explore Emily’s life story and that of her family, the unfortunate downside is that there’s simply not much there.
“Wuthering Heights” was the only book Emily Bronte ever published, and under a pseudonym at that. She died of tuberculosis at only 30 years old. Her letters, journals, and unpublished works are almost entirely lost to history. There just isn’t much of any reliable way to get a picture into Emily Bronte’s mind or figure out what she was like as a person, and her life wasn’t that long to begin with. (Likewise, Charlotte only lived to 38 years old, and Anne was dead at 29.) Which means that any attempt at a biopic will likely be a mishmash of half-truths and inaccuracies peppered with the scarce few certainties we have available.
(Side note: For a more detailed rundown, check this out.)
So here’s Emily, in which Frances O’Connor makes her writing/directing debut after a long and respectable career in acting. This is O’Connor’s attempt at dramatizing the life and times of Emily Bronte — here played by Emma Mackey — through the few years immediately preceding the publication of “Wuthering Heights” and the death of its author. Predictably, it’s a period costume drama with gothic overtones and a harsh feminist edge.
The main overarching thrust of the movie is that Emily is a free-spirited and defiantly spoken oddball in the uptight world of Victorian England. She’s an artist and a poet chafing under the rules and expectations of a time that expects her to be a good little housewife and adhere to Christian purity and find a practical way to make herself useful… you get the idea. It certainly doesn’t help that the Bronte patriarch (Patrick, played by Adrian Dunbar) just happens to be the local pastor.
Charlotte Bronte (here played by Alexandra Dowling) is portrayed as the sister who plays the game by everyone else’s rules and gets herself a nice career teaching so she can land a job somewhere else and get the hell out of town. On the other end of the spectrum is brother Branwell Bronte (Fionn Whitehead), the only one willing to encourage Emily’s anti-authoritarian streak. Alas, Branwell turns out to be a mediocre artist with a nasty habit for drug addictions, alcoholism, petty misdemeanors, and indiscreet sexual affairs.
The wild card in all this is William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), freshly arrived in town as a new curate for the church. He’s handsome, well-spoken, and insufferably condescending in his piety. So naturally, he’s established as the love interest for Emily so the both of them can work together in navigating their oppressive society.
(Side note: I feel compelled to add that Weightman was indeed a real person, but there is no evidence that he was ever romantically linked with Emily Bronte. Which isn’t exactly surprising, because — again — there’s so little surviving evidence as to exactly what Emily was really like. There is, however, some degree of evidence that Weightman was close to pretty much every other surviving member of the Bronte family, and the filmmakers do nothing with this. I have no idea how this portrayal of Weightman could’ve been such good friends with this portrayal of Branwell Bronte, but I wish the filmmakers had tried because that could’ve made for some compelling drama. More importantly, I wish the filmmakers had set up a Weightman/Emily/Anne love triangle so that Anne might’ve actually had something to do in this picture.)
On one level, we’ve got the classic premise in which an artist struggles to find a place for herself and her eccentricities and her dream world in a place where conformity is king and nothing is of value unless it can make money. On another level, Emily — and her romantic partner, to a slightly lesser degree — is trying to find a happy medium in this world with such stringent values and social norms. Yes, their society frowns upon such essential joys as love, beauty, sexuality, poetry, and so on. But they also frown upon trespassing, violence, drug abuse, marital infidelity, etc.
The film takes a nuanced approach, leaning into the confused frustration of a lead character who simply cannot find her place no matter how hard she tries. It’s a premise that simultaneously honors and subverts the social expectations of the era while also doing the same for this particular genre. It’s really quite clever, and I respect how hard the filmmakers went in this direction.
What’s even better, the filmmakers went out of their way to integrate gloomy and ominous imagery directly into the story and themes. A prominent example comes early on, when Weightman’s introductory sermon waxes poetic about the beauty and music of rainfall. He makes a lot of powerful statements in that opening thesis, and the film calls back to those statements with nothing more than the sound of rainfall. Likewise, a pivotal romantic moment happens near the ocean, thus the sound of the ocean is basically the Emily/Weightman Love Theme from that point on.
Early and often, the characters explicitly call upon nature as a prime source of inspiration. Thus we get so many beautiful shots of fields and trees and whatnot. The presentation is still distinctly gothic in how the scenery is so empty and still, but we get a film that looks gothic without desaturating everything and making the whole damn movie look monochrome. Kudos.
That said, we’ve still got some peculiar choices in the editing — I was particularly nonplussed with the practice of flashing forward by cutting to black for a few random frames. I also take issue with some of the extreme close-up shots and a couple of brief shots in unwatchable shaky-cam. Not that any of these choices are necessarily deal-breakers, and I realize that being “off-putting” is not necessarily the worst thing for a film with these particular themes and this particular premise. I just don’t know if these choices are weird in a way that strengthens the overall product, is all I’m saying.
Overall, I’d say Emily is okay. It’s well-acted and confidently directed, with distinctive technical flourishes. It’s a cleverly nuanced film about how freedom of thought and expression and love is inherently good, but any freedom can be taken too far. In this way, the film at once upholds, subverts, and comments on the morality and genre norms of Victorian-era romantic costume dramas in a relevant way to modern audiences. That said, I do have to question the wisdom in simplifying the Bronte sisters’ relationships to the point where Charlotte is an antagonist and Anne is barely in the movie. Likewise, taking a notably feminist author who left behind no evidence of any romantic entanglements and then reframing her life story as a romance seems… misguided, shall we say.
If you’re a fan of the Brontes and their work, I honestly have no idea how you’ll take all of this. If you’re not a fan of costume romantic dramas, this won’t be the one to convert you. But if you’re at least open to films of the genre, it’s worth checking out.