Obligatory Brontë fan here, reporting in on Emily (2022), a new biopic that focuses specifically on Emily Brontë, as opposed to the various films and TV series that have looked at the three sisters together. Though, of course, all three sisters and the brother are present in this flick, but because it’s about Emily, she becomes the hero and they’re all supporting and less interesting, more annoying characters.
I could savage this for not being accurate to what’s known of Emily Brontë’s life, but there’s only a bare outline of her life that’s known and it’s mostly seen through her sister Charlotte’s words. The novel Wuthering Heights, a volume of poems, and some juvenilia are all that exist from Emily’s own hand and mind. So sure, fine, whatever, make up a fictional story for Emily’s short and mostly unknown life. shrug As a movie, it’s not bad, it’s entertaining, though the love affair at the center of it stretches credulity because a) possible pregnancy, ffs and b) her love interest is a clergyman, so DUDE, would he not have some qualms or compunctions about fucking his employer’s daughter and then threatening to tell her dad? Um, you’d lose your job, fella, she’s not the one who should worry on that count. Also, why would her brother give a tiny shit about keeping them apart? That was far too soap-opera dramatic a touch.
As the collections manager at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, Ann Dinsdale, told Vogue UK about Emily Brontë’s supposed affair with the curate William Weightman
“He was apparently very, very good looking, and it’s quite often suggested that Anne Brontë might have been in love with him because we have an account of him making eyes at her in church. There was certainly some kind of flirtation with Charlotte Brontë’s lifelong friend Ellen Nussey, too, and you can’t help thinking that Charlotte herself might have been attracted to him. She’s supposed to have been planning to paint his portrait, and we do have a pencil drawing that’s believed to be of Weightman by Charlotte, posing in his clerical gown. But where Emily is concerned, we just don’t have much information.”
The idea for this movie seems to be how could someone possibly write such a passionate and wild story like Wuthering Heights unless she had experienced some wild and passionate sexual relationship on the sly. Which, OK, I guess some folks really are clueless about the concept of “imagination.” I’ll bet good money that George R.R. Martin has NOT experienced murder and incest personally, much the less riding a dragon, but he sure can write about it for his Game of Thrones series. Also, Wuthering Heights isn’t about a sexual relationship at all, so why would the author need to have sex to write about that?
I also wasn’t thrilled with the way Emily and Charlotte were pitted against each other. It was all to make a point that Emily is the weird, wild one, and Charlotte is the boring, conservative one, and the film literally ends with Charlotte “finally” being inspired to write because of Emily. Which is stupid and not true because it was Charlotte’s idea for all the sisters to publish their writing, first their poetry and then their novels, all of which they did under assumed male names (Currier, Ellis, and Acton Bell). Charlotte and Anne went to London to meet with their publisher, while Emily stayed home.
One value of the previous films/TV shows that group all three sisters together is that they show how interdependent they were, particularly in their writing. While each of the women have their own authorial styles, together they wrote and encouraged each other to write all during their lives. As children, Charlotte and Branwell grouped their storylines together, while Emily and Anne connected their stories, and all of them seemed to be related in a similar fictional world.
But hey, this is me, doing exactly what Emma Mackey, who portrays Emily, said she doesn’t want, in a TIFF interview because I’m a Brontë fans overanalyzing the movie Emily. Mackey said:
“I don’t think this film was made for necessarily just Brontë fans — that would be, you know, too restrictive. And I think hilariously, I think people who are like, proper Brontë nerds would be like, ‘Well, this is not historically accurate. What are we doing?’ But I think that’s the whole point. And it took me a while as well, because … I’m not Cartesian, but I like facts and I like history and I like, you know, sticking to the script. And so it took me a while to kind of untie that in me and just let the story happen to me and figure that out with [director] Frances [O’Connor] and let our imaginations run wild. It’s about a life, that’s all. And a rich one at that.”
One scene in the movie I did particularly enjoy was with the mask where Emily and her siblings relate to the memory of their mother, who died shortly after Anne’s birth. It’s something that seems so primary to who they are, and the scene is an evocative exploration of that trauma. As the director Frances O’Connor said to Radio Times:
“The theme of it really is: ‘How do you find your voice when you can’t see yourself reflected anywhere?'” she says. “And how do you as an artist kind of connect to who you really are when who you really are isn’t really appreciated? So everything that happens in the film — like you take the mask, for instance, the mask was a real object the Brontë’s had. And then when I was developing it, I thought that could actually be a really great symbol for Emily’s creativity, it’s connected to the mother, connected to the feminine. And so it became this great kind of symbol in a way for creativity.”
Another thing I quite liked is the portrayal of Branwell Brontë as the wastrel douchebag he really was. Most of the previous Brontë frock flicks sugarcoat it, but Branwell was a useless waste of time, and Emily tells him so here. She still loves him as a brother and they have a close, significant relationship, but as an artist and contributing member of society, he sucks.
OK, so what about the look of the thing? With costume designer Michael O’Connor (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, The Duchess, Tulip Fever) at the helm, everything is sharp and as it should be. Even if this is the 1840s death of fashion, and the coal-scuttle bonnets make me want to gag. Those few shots of Emily with hair flying free? That’s only when she’s running around the moors, because she and all the other women wear hideously historically accurate bonnets everywhere else and have their hair properly pinned up. Just because it’s accurate doesn’t mean I have to like it though!
Michael O’Connor doesn’t seem to do much press himself, but Emma Mackey told Vogue UK:
“Our costume designer Michael O’Connor is known for his attention to detail — so of course I wore the corsets and all of that, which really does impact how you speak, how you breathe, everything. What I really loved, though, is how many of the pieces that I wore as Emily to do chores around the house felt almost … grubby — like actual practical clothes rather than ‘costumes.’ There’s a real difference between the way that Emily dresses at home and when she’s out on the moors as well; her bonnet always comes off at once, like she’s physically shedding her restrictions.”
And Gemma Jones, who plays Aunt Branwell, said to Harpers Bazaar:
“We had such a happy time up in Yorkshire. For my part, I loved climbing into Aunt Branwell’s corset. It has been a sentimental job for me — Jane Eyre is one of my all-time top books. I have spent years imagining Mr Rochester coming up over the vale … I’m still waiting for him, I think!”
I also have to wonder how many copies of the costumes they made, considering all the running-through-the-rain scenes. As director Frances O’Connor said to Empire Online:
“There were some terrible days where we’d been soaked in Yorkshire rain all day, and now it’s three in the morning and we’re doing a running sequence. But we were quite blessed weather-wise. We had rain when we needed it, and sunshine. We shot in this beautiful old Georgian house in Dent, which we found out afterwards was an inspiration for Emily to write Wuthering Heights,”
Have you seen Emily? What do you think of biopics taking liberties?