In boldly reimagining the life of Emily Brontë, Frances O’Connor’s directorial debut Emily pours scorn on the notion of Emily as a sickly recluse. Instead, the film shows the Wuthering Heights author as a rebellious misfit whose writing is borne more from her own experience than her imagination.
Much has been made of the imagined worlds the siblings conjured between them as children and how their creative achievements originated therein. This film touches on that aspect of their lives briefly, before focusing on an intense period of self-discovery for Emily which, the film implies, leads her to write Wuthering Heights. Bold indeed.
Very little – and I mean very little – of what happens in the film actually happened in real life. Does it matter? I think, unfortunately, it does. I say ‘unfortunately’ because I liked a lot of this film. There aren’t enough superlatives for Abel Korzeniowski’s score. The scenes where it takes over entirely are so powerful. In particular, there is a genuinely breathtaking scene (no spoilers here but it involves a mask) that the music elevates to something almost metaphysical. This scene is also a great example of the film’s clever use of lighting – somehow evoking an atmosphere at once haunting and comforting.
The dark, drab interiors of the Brontës’ world and the bleak moorland reminded me of the grimly oppressive atmosphere evoked in Sylvia, Christine Jeffs’ 2003 biopic of Sylvia Plath. In fact, the lingering over sink-side hands in one scene is strikingly similar to a scene in Sylvia, albeit the latter is much more subtle. Subtle is not a word you could apply to Emily. Chasing the dragon, the joys of third base, getting inked for the first time – our eponymous hero does it all.
I admire O’Connor’s ambition. She has talked about wanting to engage the younger generation with the Brontës through this film. Maybe this sex, drugs and rock & roll take on Emily’s short life will appeal to the TikTok generation? I don’t know. Whether you enjoy this film or not will depend on two things: how much you know about the Brontës, and how much you care about the truth. The film does present itself as a ‘reimagining’. I could get on board with that. After reading mixed reviews, I approached it as a sort of ‘what if…’ and tried to keep an open mind.
I liked Emily’s questioning of dogma, her ridicule of blind faith. I liked the various nods to Wuthering Heights. I could forgive the fact that characters and events are completely manipulated to serve the narrative arc the film wants to achieve. In this parallel universe Haworth, Emily is Julia Stiles’ character in 10 Things I Hate About You, Patrick Brontë is quite terrifying (except for the scene where it appears that he and everyone present has had a lobotomy for Emily’s book launch – yes, you read that right: book launch), Branwell is an affable rogue, Charlotte is Nurse Ratched, and Anne might as well be a clump of heather in the parsonage’s back garden.
This parallel Haworth enables all the dynamics needed to make this version of events plausible – if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief. I clearly was to a large extent, because it moved me. What it had to say about grief, isolation and the wrench of leaving childhood behind really struck a chord. The first time I watched it, I cried so much I had to Google ‘cats being knobheads’ to get over it.
What is so frustrating, though – and what I can’t forgive – is the implication that everything Emily achieved is either drawn out of her by the talentless Branwell or inspired by the wet weekend with whom she has an affair, William Weightman. I prefer to believe that O’Connor didn’t intend to give this impression – that she was trying to show Emily as rebellious and the vehicle for that had to be men as they were afforded so much more freedom.
A modern retelling is one thing (ref: the brilliant Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet), or even a period piece with contemporary elements – the music used in Peaky Blinders, for example. Emily falls somewhere between the two – set as it happened, but straying so far from the facts that it becomes a different person’s story. It’s a compelling one, but it’s not Emily Brontë’s.
There’s a moment where she opens the window and lets nature in, before she starts to write. That’s what I wanted more of. I’m not a purist or a Brontë scholar, but I believe their legacy is an important one which needs handling with care, and this is a bit of a missed opportunity. If you’re the kind of person who gets annoyed at historical inaccuracy, do not watch this film. If you like a good yarn and a stunning score, fill your boots. Just remember to take a heavy pinch of salt.
Main image: Michael Wharley Popara Films Ltd
If you’re interested in more opinions about this film, check out this podcast: https://anchor.fm/satire-no-more/episodes/EP-45–Satire–The-Bronts-e1r1b66
Emily is on general release