Emily Brontë is certainly one of literature's most enigmatic figures. Her sole novel, Wuthering Heights, is universally regarded as one of the classics. Because she was reclusive, not much is known for sure about her life and how she conceived of the book's story. The majority of what is known comes from people who knew her, meaning their accounts could be inaccurate, biased, or interpretive. Emily has fun with that idea, speculating on what might have inspired the author to pen her famous work. Movies of this sort tend to be dry. Not this one. It’s vibrant, entertaining, and often darkly funny.
Emma Mackey (Death on the Nile) has the title role. Emily is a bundle of anxiety and quirks, which makes her sort of an outcast in her rural town. Sisters Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) and Anne (Amelia Gething) and brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead) take her eccentricities with a grain of salt. Most of the time, at least. When she’s asked to participate in a guessing game wherein they take turns wearing a mask and pretending to be the spirit of a deceased famous person, Emily turns the tables, assuming the role of their late mother, freaking everybody out in the process. Antics of this nature ensure she’s perpetually looked at with an air of caution.
One day, a new clergyman named William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) arrives. He’s an immediate hit with the townsfolk, particularly Charlotte, who develops a crush on him. Emily, on the other hand, finds his sermons hollow. She thinks he’s a bad writer. The two end up having long talks, occasionally made awkward by her oddness, that evolve into a physical relationship. These encounters spur her emotions, along with her creativity. You can see where this is going.
I don’t know how she does it, but as Emily, Mackey has a trace of craziness in her eyes. Even when nothing unusual is happening, she perpetually makes it seem like the character might be on the verge of flipping out. That quality gives the movie part of its edge. Unpredictability is one of Emily’s key traits, helping us to understand the impulsive choices she makes, while also fueling the idea that her imagination is as real to her as reality itself. Because Mackey conveys that so strongly, each social interaction our heroine engages in has a quality that makes us eager to see what she’ll say/do, and will happen as a result.
Mackey similarly does an outstanding job suggesting how Emily’s interior life is a way for her to sublimate all the complex feelings she can’t quite wrangle. Unhappy as she often is on the outside, the problems are fuel for what will become her masterpiece. It’s a commanding performance, highlighted by the way the actress delivers the humorous quips and sarcastic comments Emily relies on as a defense mechanism. Hopefully, she will be remembered come next award season.
Director Frances O’Connor stages and shoots scenes to infer that everything that happens to Emily is of profound impact. At times, the film intentionally heightens the drama a notch above normal, to clue us in that she’s absorbing events deeply. Nowhere is that truer than in the sequences depicting the fiery relationship between Emily and Weightman. She’s turned on by him, turned off by his faith, liberated by sexual release, and uncertain how to process the fact that, as a clergyman, he’s technically off-limits. Late in the movie, their union takes a dramatic turn that sends the writer spiraling into chaos. Such a crossroads could cause her to crash and burn, or it could light a fire under her. We know which way it goes; nevertheless, seeing how it goes there is captivating.
Emily is open in its fabrication. This is not a straight biopic about a famous writer. The film is speculative fiction, imagining a scenario where Wuthering Heights was born from personal experience. Ultimately, that approach proves more satisfying, as it emphasizes the impassioned quality readers of the book have long responded to. Far from being just a costume drama or a Cliff’s Notes version of a notable figure’s life, Emily is a tribute to the way great writers are able to pull ideas from the world around them, taking specific details and turning them into something universal.
out of four
Emily is rated R for some sexuality/nudity and drug use. The running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes.