How did Emily Brontë come to write Wuthering Heights? “I put pen to paper,” she says in Emily, a “speculative biopic” which manufactures origins for characters and events in that anguished novel. If audiences really were content with the pen-to-paper explanation, then the movie would have no reason to exist. Like Becoming Jane (Austen) and Miss Potter (Beatrix) before it, Emily is in the business of joining the dots between life and literature, reducing artistic inspiration to book-group talking points and dreamy what-ifs. But this debut feature from the actor-turned-director Frances O’Connor still contains striking material amid the poppycock, and even ’fesses up to its own futility.
The film begins with Emily (Emma Mackey) collapsing on the couch as her sisters Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) and Anne (Amelia Gething) flap and fuss around her. Either she has read O’Connor’s screenplay, which treats facts like furniture to be rearranged on a whim, or else she is stricken with TB and is not long for this world. But before she expires, she has just enough strength to gaze meaningfully into the camera. And… cue flashback!
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Here is the younger Emily being taunted by Charlotte (“Do you know what they call you? The strange one!”), and here she is sitting in church as her father (Adrian Dunbar) delivers his sermon and introduces the dishy new curate, Mr Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). The sisters gaze up at him in the pulpit, looking less like part of a congregation than the swooning front row at a K-pop gig.
When Emily isn’t debating theological matters with Mr Weightman during French class, she is larking around with her lupine brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead), who has returned from his studies with – wouldn’t you know it? – a tat on his forearm. Tribal sleeves and Sanskrit symbols having not yet reached 19th-century Yorkshire, he has settled for the motto “Freedom in Thought”, which he then implores Emily to bellow across the moors (“Give it some welly!”). At night, the feral siblings peer through the windows of their well-off neighbours, the Lintons (note the name), while Branwell barks and howls. Anyone would think he were asking to be the model for a tormented fictional anti-hero.
Branwell is a good egg despite his opium habit. So where might Heathcliff’s cruelty have stemmed from? Step forward Mr Weightman. One minute he’s giving Emily French lessons, the next he’s… well, giving her French lessons, only now he is whispering them softly as he humps her in front of the fire. From there it’s a few short weeks until he is gaslighting and slut-shaming her, and she is hammering at his door in the middle of the night, haunting him mortally much as Catherine will haunt Heathcliff from beyond the grave.
This is every bit as literal-minded as it sounds, though O’Connor (who played Fanny Price in Patricia Rozema’s penetrating 1999 film of Mansfield Park) achieves some transformative effects in a string of scenes suggesting magic or illusion. In one gothic episode, Emily’s gift for immersive storytelling transforms an innocuous parlour game into a séance. In another, she bids goodbye to Branwell for the last time, embracing him through a white bedsheet hanging between them on the washing line. When she peers behind it, he has vanished. It is almost as if O’Connor is admitting in such moments that the whole concept behind her film is bunkum, and that the nebulous creative process can’t be rendered as inventory when it is closer to the supernatural.
Perhaps that’s why she throws chronology to the wind. Brontë devotees will be staggered to learn that Branwell died before the publication of Wuthering Heights (he didn’t) or that Emily’s death inspired Charlotte to write Jane Eyre (it was in fact published two months before her younger sister’s book).
O’Connor’s cast doesn’t let her down, even when her own script does. Mackey (star of Sex Education) and Whitehead (the main squaddie from Dunkirk) are sullen without being leaden; the scene in which Emily critiques Branwell’s writing, lacerating him with barbs she intends also for herself, sings with authentic pain. In the far smaller role of Anne, Gething delivers killer lines and looks to match. Glancing down at Charlotte, who is gnashing her teeth over Emily’s manuscript and cursing her gifted sister, Anne arches an eyebrow and observes tartly: “I see you finished it, then.” Talk about withering heights.
“Emily” is in cinemas now
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This article appears in the 12 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Will Putin go Nuclear?