Emily (United Kingdom, 2022)

February 21, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Emily Poster

Academics will argue about which of the Bronte sisters left the most important literary legacy. All three died young – Emily in 1848 at the age of 30, Anne (Agnes Grey, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) in 1949 at the age of 28, and Charlotte (Jane Eyre) in 1855 at the age of 38 – but each left behind novels that are currently recognized as literary classics. Emile Bronte’s sole published work was Wuthering Heights. Released in 1847 under a pen name (Ellis Bell), the gothic romance created quite a stir and split critics. Whether Emily was working on another book at the time of her death is a topic of speculation; some believe that the manuscript may have been burnt by her sister. Most of what we know about Emily was curated and shaped by Charlotte, making it difficult to see through fog to the real person. For this homage, Emily, actor-turned-director Frances O’Connor uses speculation and outright fiction to fill in the threadbare historical tapestry. The result, although impressively mounted and passably entertaining, has the generic feel of many woman-centered 19th century period pieces.

The narrative, which draws inspiration equally from the historical title character’s life and her novel, focuses on the years leading up to Emily Bronte’s (Emma Mackey) authorship of Wuthering Heights and imagines some of the incidents and relationships that may have informed her writing. Her interactions with her sisters, Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) and Anne (Amelia Gething), are downplayed, although nonetheless important. She and Anne are shown to be kindred spirits but there are hints of jealousy and tension between her and Charlotte. A fair amount of screen time is devoted to the playful relationship with her brother, Branwell (Fionn Whitehead), who uses opium and has “Freedom in thought” tattooed on his arm. Together they get stoned and act as voyeurs, peering through the window of a local family. Finally, her liaison with William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a young, attractive curate at her father’s parsonage, allows Emily to experience love and passion (and all the goes along with those emotions). One supposes that he is her Heathcliffe.

Emma Mackey, who is best known for playing opposite Asa Butterfield in the Netflix series Sex Education, is fine as Emily. She brings some of the feistiness of the show’s Maeve Wiley to the part, imparting the character with a spark. One can make the argument that she’s the only member of the cast to leave more than a passing impression. (Although it’s nice to see veteran performers Adrian Dunbar and Gemma Jones in supporting roles.) The film’s writing and structure are distancing, however, disallowing viewers from identifying with Emily on an emotional level. The screenplay provides little in the way of insight into her as a person or an author, resulting in a fairly straightforward melodrama that could have been about any creative woman living in rural England during the early Victorian era.

As is invariably the case with British-produced period pieces, the costumes, set design, and recreation of time & place are impeccable. None of the actors seem out of place. Yet it’s hard to see this as more than a supersized episode of Masterpiece Theater or a production designed primarily for scholars of 19th century English literature in general or the Brontes in particular. The story evidently has great personal meaning to Frances O’Connor, who stepped away from her acting career to start a new one as writer/director. And, although there’s nothing especially wrong with Emily, little in the movie causes it to stand apart from other, similar productions. (Becoming Jane and Miss Potter leap to mind.) A viewer may not have previously seen this movie (or, indeed any movie about Emily Bronte) but the sense of déjà vu persists.

Emily (United Kingdom, 2022)

Director: Frances O’Connor
Cast: Emma Mackey, Fionn Whitehead, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Alexandra Dowling, Amelia Gething, Adrian Dunbar, Gemma Jones
Home Release Date: 2023-04-18
Screenplay: Frances O’Connor
Cinematography: Nanu Segal
Music: Abel Korzeniowski
U.S. Distributor: Bleecker Street Films
Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Home Release Date: 2023-04-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: In English and French with subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1