Although Wuthering Heights is widely considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written, not much is known about the book’s author, whose life is largely a mystery.
In EMILY, actor-turned-writer/ director Frances O’Connor attempts to offer a glimpse into the Brontë family’s lives. Loosely biographical, it focuses specifically on the imagined life of one of the world’s most famous but mysterious authors.
The film stars Emma Mackey as Emily, who is portrayed as a rebel and misfit. The young actress relished the chance to tackle such a beloved character: “The Brontë family is shrouded in mystery. They’re sort of untouchable, especially Emily. She’s this mysterious figure, and I like that we’re fleshing her out and giving her a character, a personality and a voice and making her a living, breathing woman, as opposed to this figure from history.”
EMILY begins with a newcomer, clergyman William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), coming to the remote village of Haworth. His arrival not only disrupts proceedings but causes emotional ripples that gather momentum as the story unfolds.
The Brontë girls are initially quite curious about William, but soon become dismissive. However, things start to shift when William is tasked with giving Emily – who has grown up wild, free and fiercely independent – French lessons, resulting in an intense and all-consuming affair.
In addition to this forbidden and ultimately doomed love, which inspired the writing of Wuthering Heights, the film explores the various relationships that shaped Emily’s life, especially her raw, passionate sisterhood with Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) and Anne (Amelia Gething), and her care for her maverick brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead), whom she idolises. The film also stars Adrian Dunbar and Gemma Jones.
More broadly, EMILY is a coming-of-age story – it’s about a woman finding herself and her authentic voice and power in the world.
“Emily has a lot going on,” explains Mackey. “We see her start off as this timid, shy, and very observant girl. She’s seeking her father’s approval and doesn’t really know what her place in the family and in the world is yet, but she’s imaginative and curious and wants to tell all these stories. Over the course of the film, we see her evolve and develop relationships with her brother and William. Her relationships with her sisters evolve and change too, as well as her relationship with herself, her imagination, and her confidence. We see this evolution.”
The film is O’Connor’s directorial debut, from her own original screenplay. “There were certain things in Emily’s life that I identified with,” she says. “Certain things that I think thematically are part of ‘Wuthering Heights’ and her life that I also relate to, and I think a lot of women would relate to, so the idea came from that.” In writing the script for EMILY, O’Connor blended historical accuracy about the Brontë’s lives with Emily’s imagined world. “I could’ve told a story that was a straight biography, but I felt like that’s been done. I was more interested in finding a way to celebrate who Emily is, that’s connected to ‘Wuthering Heights’ and is more strongly narrative in a way that is a little like a fairy-tale.”
EMILY is beautifully acted, lovingly shot, and intensely imagined. It takes audiences on a journey that initially might feel familiar to fans of the Brontës, but which also offers up a fresh new take on the life of one of literature’s most mysterious authors, delving deep into the psyche of Emily and those closest to her as she navigates who she really is and what she is to become.
The film is a must-see for Brontë fans, Wuthering Heights aficionados, literature students, and book lovers.