Actress France O’Connor’s directorial debut is a brilliant and engrossing biopic of Emily Bronte. Emily stars Emma Mackey as the 19th century poet and novelist, and the plot reveals Bronte’s complex relationships with her brother, Branwell (Fionn Whitehead), and sister Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) and budding romance with the local curate, William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen).
O’Connor depicts Bronte as a misfit artist who never quite fits in. O’Connor’s Charlotte is a “goody two-shoes” perfect daughter who aligns herself with the mores of the time, and Branwell writes “freedom in thought” on his forearm like a mantra. Weightman is caught in the middle between the religious strictures of the time and his love for Emily. In the middle of this whirlwind is Emily, who, like so many young people today, doesn’t know where she fits or what can fulfill her life. Emily is about being unable to one’s place in the world, which is a timeless and vital theme.
The film also traces the composition and publication of Emily Bronte’s most important novel, Wuthering Heights. In the framing narrative that begins the film, Charlotte says that it’s a story filled with cruel people. “Good,” Emily replies. And in the film’s depiction of her relationship with her family, one can see why.
Parts of Emily are the stuff of staid dramas of manners that viewers of Downton Abbey and Jane Austen adaptations may recognize, and these scenes are often filled with weighty looks and awkward pauses. This is old territory, but the performances carry these scenes ably. However, the most remarkable performance comes from Mackey, whose expressive face and sometimes cutting behavior carry the film. Mackey gives the first great performance of the year, and Emily relies on her excellent work.
Emily’s pacing is too slow, and there are too many shots of characters looking happy/sad against the backdrop of the beautiful English countryside. And there are elements of the story that are underdeveloped. Emily the artist and Emily the religious rebel become important elements of her character without as much on-screen exploration as possible.
Overall, the real highlight of Emily is Emma Mackey. O’Connor trusts her with carrying the film, and she is up to the challenge.