She wrote only one novel but it became a classic. She was thirty years old when she died of tuberculosis. One of her sisters also became a famous novelist. Sounds like Jeopardy, no? Answer: Who is Emily Bronte?
In Emily, director Frances O'Connor draws on some the limited facts about Bronte’s brief life. More importantly, she finds something of the wildly independent spirit that infused Bronte's signature work, Wuthering Heights.
That's not to say that Emily spends all its time brooding or wandering the moors that haunted Bronte's Heathcliff. Brilliantly rendered by Emma Mackey, Emily becomes a semi-fictional creation that helps us appreciate the artist behind the art, not a character who once lived but one who feels fully alive.
The movie embeds Emily's story in her family life.
Bronte's stuffy widowed father (Adrian Dunbar) favors sister Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) and tolerates wayward brother Bran (Fionn Whitehead).
Gemma Jones portrays Aunt Branwell, the woman who holds the Bronte household together. As the youngest of the Bronte sisters, Anne (Amelia Gething) benefits from everyone's affection.
Aspiring writers during the time the movie takes place, Emily and Charlotte engage in an intense sibling rivalry. Charlotte, of course, wrote Jane Eyre, another highly regarded novel.
Bronte scholars will recognize the many liberties that O'Connor, who also wrote the movie's screenplay, takes -- none more prominent than the inclusion of a torrid love affair between Emily and newly arrived clergyman William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen).
Tormented by his clerical conscience, Weightman staggers into an affair that Emily has far less trouble embracing. He can't entirely overcome the guilt that springs from an ingrained sense of propriety.
It's hardly a spoiler to note that the affair leads to heartbreak and allows O'Connor to make effective use of a hoary literary conceit. No fair telling more but this risky ploy easily could have curdled. Instead, it works, giving the movie a novelistic feel.
Emily's brother Branwell proves a delusional mess, the Bronte who declares himself a writer and romanticizes his role as such. The problem: If he ever had any talent, Bran surrendered it to drink and opium.
When Branwell shares a manuscript with Emily, she delivers a takedown so withering, it may give you chills. I was tempted to try to copy it verbatim should the need for such a brutally honest reaction ever present itself. And, no, I don't think it I could say those words to anyone.
In the movie's most unsettling scene, Emily dons a mask that her father had made of her late mother. She seems to channel her mother's spirit. I didn't quite know what to make of the moment and I'm not sure the movie did either. Still, it augments the unease surrounding Emily, the feeling that she exists at a remove from others.
O'Connor presumes that we understand Emily's attraction to the fragrance and forbidding mysteries of the moors. It helps I suppose to have read Wuthering Heights or at least seen William Wyler's 1939 adaptation starring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier.
Emily isn't a bona fide biopic. Maybe that's why the movie never feels as if it might by suffocated by period-piece trappings. Besides, Emily may be something better than a straight depiction of Bronte's life: A look at the vital spirit that burned in a writer whose dark novel about ferocious love still resonates almost 175 years after her death.
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