Review: In Emily, an Author’s Life, Loves and Heartbreak Inspire a Classic Novel

Not being at all fluent in the writing or life stories of the Brontë sisters (Anne, Charlotte, or Wuthering Heights author Emily), I have no idea how much of the new film Emily is based on reality and how much is from the research and imagination of writer/director Frances O’Connor (a fantastic actor turned first-time filmmaker). However tight or loose O’Connor’s grip on the truth might be, her mission seems to be to paint Emily Brontë in a way that explains and puts into context how someone living a fairly serene, privileged, and solitary life with her family wrote such a soul-crushing, emotionally tortured, borderline-evil Gothic novel. The result is a dark, sometimes disturbing but ultimately beautiful work, led by a devastating performance by Emma Mackey (Death on the Nile, the series Sex Education, and the upcoming Barbie movie) as the author.

Still reeling from the death of her mother, Emily struggles to find a place in her immensely talented family, all of whom look at her as the odd duck of the brood who seemingly had no real talents or prospects for getting married off and out of the house. Her closest ally is her brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead), who's something of a drunk and opium addict, but he also encourages Emily to embrace the darker corners of her life and somehow turn that into something creative, the way her sisters Anne (Amelia Gething) and Charlotte (author of Jane Eyre, played by Alexandra Dowling) eventually did. But the Brontë patriarch (Adrian Dunbar) would settle for a daughter who is pleasant and normal by conventional standards. Instead, Emily frequently refuses to leave the house and is terrified to meet new people, until a new pastor and tutor, William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), moves into town and is hired by Mr. Brontë to teach French to Emily. The two begin a love affair that must remain hidden for the sake of both of their reputations, and the clandestine nature of it combined with Weightman’s guilt at committing such a sin, leads Emily down a road of pain and heartbreak that are the beginnings of a familiar story.

Having just seen the current stage adaptation of Wuthering Heights at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, I could easily spot the reference points that filmmaker O’Connor sprinkled into Emily, not like your run-of-the-mill easter eggs, but with a great deal more nuance. More about familiar atmosphere and brutalized emotions, O’Connor has an honest sense of how a young woman of the period might have channeled her suffering onto the page into something like a purge. History tells us that Emily Brontë died at 30, only about a year after Wuthering Heights was published (and not even under her own name initially), so she wasn’t able to enjoy her success the way her sisters did. As much as Emily is a tragedy in many respects, O’Connor makes it clear that Emily's final act of creation was on her own terms, with no compromise—something of a rarity in the mid-1800s. Despite its deliberate pacing, the film is a vibrant, passionate, and ultimately moving bit of biographical fiction.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.