Movie Review: A speculatively passionate take on the “Wuthering” Bronte — “Emily”

Shy, reclusive and homesick when she wasn’t at home with her father and siblings in Haworth, Yorkshire, not much was known about “Wuthering Heights” author Emily Bronte in her brief thirty years of life. And not much more is known today, some of that spin from her equally famous competitive writer/sister Charlotte Bronte, of “Jane Eyre” fame.

Perhaps there were roiling passions beneath the surface of one sister that the other played-down due to decorum, reputation, prudishness or just plain jealousy. They do come off as rivals, thanks mostly to what we’ve learned about Charlotte’s fiddling with her sibling’s image.

But that leaves the door open to speculation, to inventing details of a life no one knows, a “Becoming Jane” (about Jane Austen’s “true love”) or “Immortal Beloved” (Beethoven) treatment of a discrete life whose discretion was guarded, even after death.

With “Emily,” the debut feature of actress turned director Frances O’Connor (“The Conjuring 2,” “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” TV’s Mr. Selfridge”), we’re shown a mercurial talent and “You know how I don’t like to meet new people” near-recluse who is also a woman of Austenesque wit and Byronic passions.

She carries on a torrid affair with the curate (assistant pastor) at her father’s church.

It’s probably not true. Scholars and fans have guessed that it was sister Anne Bronte whom Curate William Weightman adored. But that doesn’t spoil the film, which veers from defiant to self-destructive, playful to tragic, and gives a proper star vehicle to Emma Mackey of TV’s “Sex Education” and the recent big screen “Death on the Nile,” as the writer who billed herself Ellis Bell during her lifetime.

We meet a young woman lectured to “Try not to be a BURDEN, Emily” by her family, a girl growing up without her mother, determined to impress her stern father (Adrian Dunbar, terrific) and fit in with her sisters and brother.

But older sister Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling, biting and subtle) comes home from boarding school and chides her, straight away. She doesn’t approve of Emily’s oddness, her passion for making up stories, a girl nicknamed “the strange one” by the locals.

“You’re an EMBARASSMENT to us,” Charlotte eventually fumes.

The film suggests that maybe this is because Emily was the one who dismissed Charlotte’s chances with the handsome new curate, a man fond of homey, lighthearted sermons that pass along Christian values with a bit of humor.

O’Connor strolls through the “known” parts of the biography such as Emily cowering in a closet at her sister’s boarding school, weeping until she’s sent home. The writer-director details the close attachment to Bronte’s only brother, the mercurial “Freedom of Thought” dreamer, Branwell (Fionn Whitehead).

But a couple of scenes will take your breath away with their audacity and invention.

We learn how their mother’s death is something “which we never speak of,” before Mr. Bronte brings out a theatre mask that was anonymously given, as a wedding present, to him and his late wife. When Dad goes to bed, the sisters, Branwell and their new pal — the hip young preacher — break it out for a guess-who-I-am-behind-the-mask version of charades.

They force the shy Emily to take a turn, and she becomes first a silent killjoy wearing the mask, then a chilling and ghostly recollection of their mother, which leads to an incredibly emotional opening for the siblings’ closure with their lost parent.

At another point, Branwell is being sent away, and he insists on making their farewells as Emily hangs the laundered sheets. They bicker, confess and even embrace never seeing each other, with a billowing sheet between them. And then he’s gone.

That’s brilliant in its simplicity.

I’m not the first person to pick up on how much the Anglo-French Mackey resembles the Australian star and “It” actress Margot Robbie. They’ve been cast together in Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” comedy, two classic “doll-like” look-alike beauties. That’s germane because one can almost see Robbie cast in this version of Bronte, presented here as a woman who eschewed the “blind faith” of her father and the young preacher, Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) who comes to their parish, teaches Emily French, and not just the language.


O’Connor sets up this affair in classic Austen “Loathing at first sight” fashion, and by the time things are hot and heavy, jokes around with the demure letters Emily writes and voice-over-narrates to her teacher-sister Charlotte comically contrasted with Emily’s literal rolls in the hay.

“Emily” won’t pass muster in the halls of academe or among the Brontefiles. Dates are rearranged, liberties taken, some of a libertine (opium, sex) nature.

But our writer-director has conjured up a full, flesh and blood life. And our star transforms Emily from a repressed Yorkshire artist who channeled her passions onto the pages of one of the Great Romantic Novels into a human being of sexual passion, love and heartbreak, and a thing for Men on the Moors.

Rating: R for some sexuality/nudity and drug use.

Cast: Emma Mackey, Alexandra Dowling, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Fionn Whitehead,
Gemma Jones and Adrian Dunbar

Credits: Scripted and directed by Frances O’Connor. A Bleecker St. release.

Running time: 2:10


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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