One of the great literary wonders is how the Bronte sisters wrote with such passionate intensity when they grew up in an isolated rural parsonage in the early 1800s. Charlotte, the oldest surviving daughter in the family, wrote Jane Eyre but not until after Emily, the middle daughter who died at 30, published Wuthering Heights, an epic novel about star-crossed lovers as haunted as it is romantic, set on the rain-soaked Yorkshire moors.
We may still be no wiser, but Australian actor Frances O’Connor wrote and directed this fever dream of what might have happened to the middle Bronte to explain the depths on which she drew.
It is a pretty tale about a clever girl with an adventurous streak, an accomplished pianist and confident French speaker who is so shy she hides in the cupboard and suffers from agoraphobia. The character of Emily is anchored by Emma Mackey (Sex Education, Eiffel) who brings life and conviction to Emily’s wild-child nature, part fiery rebel and part dutiful daughter in a bonnet.
When the new curate arrives, he brings trouble with him. William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) in his first sermon establishes his poetic credentials before an adoring congregation. Emily is scornful but when Weightman’s gaze turns to her, she learns what it is to love and be loved. Yet she is too much for Weightman who sees in her something both wonderful and ungodly: a capacity for passion that has no place in polite society.
There are inconsistencies and red herrings. Emily’s adoration of her feckless brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead) is extreme, as he throws away a place at the Royal College of Art, and turns to opium and gin to fulfil his destiny as the Bronte who couldn’t write. Meanwhile, Emily, who was too fearful to leave the house, heads off to Brussels with Charlotte to heal her broken heart.
Back in Yorkshire, she begins to write.
As the film opens, Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) confronts Emily crying “I hate you” and falls in a gingham heap on the floor. “I see you’ve read the book,” the youngest sister Anne says. Their turn will come, and in this telling, Emily’s achievement becomes their inspiration.
The works of the Bronte sisters are transcendent because they move so fearlessly into romantic gothic horror. In Jane Eyre, a chaste young governess falls in love with a reclusive landowner whose mad wife lives in the attic. Hear that tapping at the icy window? It’s the spirit of Catherine in Wuthering Heights, roaming the rain-soaked moors in search of Heathcliff.
O’Connor plays by the rules of period drama with swelling scores to direct our emotional response, but Mackey’s luminous performance brings warmth to a story about a brilliant young woman awakening to love.
Emily is in cinemas now
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