Emily Paints a Haunting Portrait of the Most Mysterious Brontë

4 minute read

You probably know right off the bat whether you’re a Wuthering Heights person or a Jane Eyre person. Both, of course, are great. But as chilling as Charlotte Brontë’s mad-wife-in-the-attic yarn may be, her sister Emily’s book—a story of melancholic obsession, of love that seeps into the soil of the grave, of pearl gray skies and majestic, gnarled tree branches—speaks to even darker recesses of the human spirit. It’s a book you either embrace forever or want to burn after reading.

We know relatively little about the woman who wrote Wuthering Heights, but Frances O’Connor’s directorial debut, Emily—which blends fact with fanciful fiction—paints a haunting and sympathetic portrait of the person she might have been. Emma Mackey (Sex Education) plays Emily, the next-to-youngest daughter of an uptight Yorkshire curate (Adrian Dunbar), long widowed. The sheltered and clearly eccentric Emily adores her younger sister Anne (Amelia Gething), whose extravagant imagination dovetails with her own, and older brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead), a painter and aspiring writer who strives to live by romantic ideals. Emily is both shocked and inspired when she sees the words Freedom in thought tattooed in floating script on his forearm.

Read more: Emily Brontë Never Knew How Successful She’d Become

Oliver Jackson-Cohen (center)Bleecker Street

But her relationship with her older sister Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) is fraught. Charlotte’s affection for Emily is electrified by passive-aggressive undercurrents, and eventually by jealousy. She grasps that Emily is somehow both of this earth and not. Early in the movie, she offers a succinct, damning review of her sister’s manuscript: “It’s an ugly book—base and ugly!” But one person’s base ugliness is another’s earthy beauty, and that’s the sturdy vine of thought O’Connor traces here. As Mackey plays her, Emily is wild as a thistle; her eyes seem to be lit by strange thoughts she dares not speak aloud. Then she meets the young curate hottie William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who appears to see straight into her soul. In the vision of Emily, it’s the intensely erotic but ill-fated love affair between these two that inspires Wuthering Heights.

Mackey as Brontë, writingBleecker Street

Is that how it really went down? Almost certainly not, although Weightman was a real person, and one with whom Emily Brontë would have been acquainted. (He was also, reportedly, an enormous flirt.) Still, there’s a kind of emotional truth to the way O’Connor—best known as an actor, having starred in Mansfield Park and A.I. Artificial Intelligence—tells this story. When Emily finds a tube forthrightly labeled elixir of opium among her brother’s things, her curiosity is piqued; a few beats later, we see her pinned eyes, looking weirder and more feral than before.

In real life, poor Branwell really was undone at least partly by opium. Might Emily have tried it too? Again, unlikely—but the suggestion is that the book she ultimately wrote couldn’t have been more mystically charged even if she had. Emily, who died at age 30 in 1848, is the most mysterious Brontë, partly because Charlotte, who survived her, appears to have exerted some control over her life story. The best this heady, evocative un-biopic can do is surf the wave of her unknowability. Even so, Emily poured so much ardent, forbidden energy into Wuthering Heights that it might be considered a spiritual fingerprint. Wherever this book came from, it’s as real as the sound of the wind.

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