Movie review: “Emily” plays favorites with the Brontë sisters

Movie review: “Emily” plays favorites with the Brontë sisters

Frances O’Connor, writer and director of Emily, seems reluctant to spell out her characters’ motivations. That drags on the film, but as a stylistic move it’s understandable given that this is a movie about the creation of one of the most fundamentally inexplicable novels in all of English literature.

Since its 1847 publication, Wuthering Heights has both fascinated and disturbed readers. What are we to make of this morbid saga about a brutal man who takes petty to a new level? The literary origin story is a genre prone to literalism, and O’Connor’s restraint saves Emily from being a pedestrian movie like Tolkien, where a fictional character’s supposed real-life inspiration is even given the same name as the character just to make absolutely sure nobody misses the point.

The timing is certainly propitious for an Emily Brontë biopic. Goth is in (see: Wednesday). Historical dramas have wriggled out of their corsets to embrace an exuberant accessibility, anachronism be damned (see: Dickinson, Bridgerton, Catherine Called Birdy). There’s even been a pop renaissance for Kate Bush, who Stateside was mostly known for a song about Wuthering Heights until Stranger Things made her “Running Up That Hill” into an unlikely summer hit.

One can imagine what Greta Gerwig, Lena Dunham, or Jane Campion might have brought to this material: the stormy story of a literary family just as its two most famous members, a pair of sisters, are coming into their powers. O’Connor, making her debut as writer and director, circles the story without ever quite settling on a place to give viewers purchase.

O’Connor’s extensive acting experience seems to have put her in good stead creating memorable moments for her cast. Emma Mackey is magnetic in the title role, conveying the sense that she’s discovering her trajectory not just over the course of the film but from moment to moment. Among her several crying scenes, nothing is quite up there with Anya Taylor-Joy’s spontaneously bloody nose in Emma, but Mackey’s focus and timing are undeniable.

Unfortunately, we’re often as confused as Emily is. Who is this woman, exactly? Early on it’s established that among the Brontë sisters she’s thought to be the odd one, but O’Connor doesn’t show us how the world sees Emily. She bonds with her similarly independent-minded brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead) and one might imagine she’s frustrated at the gender constraints she, rather than he, faces. That’s never made explicit, though; nor does O’Connor investigate the roots of Emily’s disdain for her more conventional sisters.

As a character, Emily is nearly upstaged by her love interest. O’Connor does a neat balancing act with the character of William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who doesn’t fit the stereotype of either a pious pedagogue or a lascivious rogue. By the time the two have progressed to heaving bosoms in the hay, we’re not sure whether or not we’re rooting for them: a welcome ambiguity that’s grounded in what we gradually learn about Weightman’s competing motivations.

Emily’s remain more opaque. In what’s not a short film (130 minutes), O’Connor chooses to flash through some key character moments — including the outcome of Emily’s attempt to take a teaching trade, and the deaths that start piling up. Abel Korzeniowski’s pulsing score strains to convey the expression that shocking and dark developments are afoot, but atmosphere is no substitute for character development.

The actual Wuthering Heights sets up the mystery of a miserable family and proceeds to very deliberately unpack it. Emily begins with its own mystery: how did Brontë write such a novel? The rest of the movie provides some of the ingredients for Wuthering Heights, but not the recipe.

If the film as a whole disappoints, there are moments when Emily comes alive and reveals glimmers of what O’Connor is capable of. In one unforgettable scene, Jackson-Cohen paces toward a waiting Mackey across one of those windswept heaths. We see Weightman from Emily’s point of view, framed through a vertical window. She looks toward him, then away, then back, and away again, and back yet again — the young man, his eyes cast down, appearing closer each time and creating a sort of strobing effect that evokes Emily’s racing pulse as time flashes forward.

The montage of sexual awakening that follows is somewhat more pedestrian, but like sex, sometimes film is all about the anticipation.

Jay Gabler

Photo courtesy Bleecker Street