Producers: Piers Tempest, Robert Connolly and David Barron Director: Frances O’Connor Screenplay: Frances O’Connor Cast: Emma Mackey, Fionn Whitehead, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Alexandra Dowling, Adrian Dunbar, Amelia Gething and Gemma Jones Distributor: Bleecker Street
A high school student tasked with writing an essay on Emily Brontë is forewarned not to use Frances O’Connor’s florid quasi-biographical film as a source of information: it’s riddled with factual errors, culminating in depicting the appearance of “Wuthering Heights” with Brontë’s name on the title page (it was published under a pseudonym, of course) and in saying that it prompted a celebratory party on the part of her family and friends and led to her sister Charlotte’s decision to write “Jane Eyre” (which was actually published two months earlier). And that’s merely the tip of the iceberg.
So long as accuracy is a negligible concern, however, you might be drawn to actress O’Connor’s admittedly highly imaginative but well-acted film. Though those who put a premium on adherence to the historical record will be reluctant to tolerate its flights of fancy, and others may simply object to its embrace of the most overwrought tropes of period romantic drama in the service of a modern message of female empowerment, most viewers should agree that, whatever its flaws, at least “Emily” isn’t dull.
It is rather predictable, however, in portraying Brontë as a woman of exceptional intelligence trapped in a milieu of stifling social conventions and expectations, whose genius nonetheless finally triumphed against all obstacles. O’Connor also seems committed to the old bromide about “writing what you know,” so her plot addresses the much-discussed question of how Emily, coming from so confined a background, could possibly have written a tale of such passion and tragedy by suggesting that she must have had a fervid secret romance that ended tragically. (The wild imagination she and her sisters exhibited in the fictional worlds they created to amuse themselves as girls apparently isn’t enough to explain Heathcliff.)
The fact that the standard biographies of Brontë mention no such affair isn’t a problem—what little is definitely known of Emily’s life is fairly rote stuff, and the undisputed facts can easily be made to fit with the elaborate scenario that O’Connor’s screenplay provides. One needn’t gravitate toward the opinion of some writers that Emily had an incestuous relationship with her brother Branwell to find a candidate for a clandestine lover; ready to hand is William Weightman, the curate of Emily’s father Rev. Patrick Brontë. Weightman is known to have been very attractive to the women of the parish. In fact, there is some slight indication that he might have had a relationship with one of the Brontë sisters. But it was Anne, not Emily.
In O’Connor’s version, however, it’s Emily (played by Emma Mackey) with whom Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) has a torrid romance, sparked in part by their being thrown together when Patrick (Adrian Dunbar) asks his assistant to tutor his daughter in French. Their contact blossoms into love, which they must indulge with the greatest care in order to protect both Weightman’s position and both of their reputations. They meet clandestinely in a remote, abandoned cottage.
Meanwhile Emily remains the eccentric among her sisters, the older Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) and the younger Anne (Amelia Getting). They and their wayward brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead) are under the close supervision of their widowed father and their Aunt Branwell (Gemma Jones), who became Patrick’s housekeeper after the death of his wife (and her sister) Maria. But while Charlotte and Anne are docile and obedient in following Patrick’s plans for their futures, Emily and Branwell are sources of concern—he for his dissolute ways and she for her peculiarities. O’Connor depicts Emily going into a virtual trance while playing a game the sisters have invented, practically assuming the persona of Maria during one of their nighttime sessions, and otherwise exhibiting a vaguely independent streak. She also joins Branwell in his increasingly radical ideas—like thinking for oneself—and his reckless conduct, like spying on their neighbors at night.
There’s no doubt that Emily was close to Branwell, but O’Connor portrays their relationship in extravagant style, showing them gamboling about the Yorkshire moors as well as sneaking out to peer through the windows of nearby houses from the bushes—and getting caught doing it. She also makes Branwell the source of the tragic ending of Emily’s affair with Weightman—though precisely how won’t be revealed here. (It does, however, have the merit of chronological plausibility.)
Setting aside the many errors of factual detail and the exceedingly speculative plot elements, it’s entirely possible to enjoy “Emily” as a specimen of English period melodrama. It’s handsomely mounted—the locations are eye-catching, the production design (by Steve Summersgill) and costumes (by Michael O’Connor) apt, and the cinematography (by Nanu Segal) quite attractive. Sam Sneade’s editing is rather stately but certainly adequate, while Abel Korzeniowski contributes a score that italicizes the tensions roiling beneath the ostensibly decorous surfaces.
And O’Connor, a good actress herself, elicits performances that fit her construction of Brontë’s life, however dubious it might be. Most of the cast—Jackson-Cohen, Dowling, Dunbar, Gething and Jones—contribute the sort of controlled, reserved turns characteristic of such period fare, but Mackey and Whitehead are more extravagant, their roles inviting moments of ecstasy and abandon that set them apart.
Given the enigmatic nature of Brontë’s life, it’s fair to speculate about the incentives behind her writing. But even with the clandestine romance O’Connor postulates, “Emily” is basically just a medium-grade Masterpiece Theatre episode.