Emily | Review

★★★★

‘How did you write Wuthering Heights?’ So says a primly envious Charlotte Brontë (Alexandra Dowling) to her dying sister in the opening scene of Emily, Frances O’Connor’s exceptionally assured directorial debut. This question will fuel the film to come, an essay in the art of eloquent speculation.

Emily Brontë has long puzzled biographers, her reclusive soul never quite pairing with the intensity of her novel’s profound interest in humanity, love and desire. Here, she is played with subtly furious passion by Sex Education’s Emma Mackey. O’Connor draws on the text of Wuthering Heights to trace back and tease from known history a compelling and hugely engaging narrative. In answer to her sister, Emily dryly responds that she merely put quill to paper. There must be more.

From one ending, the film takes us back some years to another. That of childhood. Though not the youngest by age, it is Emily, not Anne (Amelia Gething), who feels most strongly in vindication towards embracing the stuffy maturity expected of her. As Charlotte derides the very notion of dreams – ‘waste of good sleep’ – Emily is suffocated by them. ‘I have,’ she says ‘lots of stories’. Working in lockstep with her heroine, O’Conner films with dreamlike fluidity and feverish impatience. Blackouts punctuate her story’s flow, in which earthy realism and gothic excess vie for dominance. It is both wild and tamed. Silence sings as loudly as the operatic indulgences of Abel Korzeniowski’s score.

It is not just her fervent imagination that sets Emily apart. In the village, folk call her ‘the strange one’. Emily finds no solace in society but enjoys the companionship of nature, with which she shares a near supernatural consanguinity. In one early scene, horror blurs into the biographical as a game enters the psychic realm. Perhaps Emily is merely acting, alarming those who wish her to conform with the power of her mind. Perhaps she really does, in that moment, become at one with the storm that erupts in through the window.

Beyond said window, and the rugged walls of the Brontë Parsonage, cinematographer Nanu Segal draws on the moorland landscape to enhance O’Connor’s lens with a tangible, painterly texture. This is only enhanced by the brisk ebb and flow of Niv Adiri’s remarkable soundscape. In empowering the wind and rain and earth and sky to be heard as a potent voice in its own regard, Emily recalls Frances Lee’s similarly set God’s Own Country. That film too wrestled the North’s raw beauty and inflicted a fiercely animalistic frenzy upon its romantic narrative. Indeed, when Emily finds love – with Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s dashing curate – it is not innocent but passionate, complex and brandished with notions of sin.

Mackey is outstanding here – sullen, layered, living and breathing her role – and well matched an astutely cast ensemble. O’Conner is brazen in her revisionist approach to Brontë’s life – embracing ones difference as exceptionalism is a rather more twenty-first than nineteenth century phenomenon – and yet somehow grasps at an embodiment of self that feels truthful. This is an earthy adaptation of biographical fact, clawed from the ground itself, Howarth soil still lingering deep under the film’s fingernails. It is emotionally, if not historically, honest.

O’Connor is meticulous in crafting out the visual and narrative framing of Emily, with the attention to detail in her artistic eye proving remarkable. Throughout the film, windows, tapestries and grassy verges wrap imagery in pointed enclosures. Shots are not simply captured but moulded to be exactly where and what they need to be. As the film draws to a close, Charlotte finds her answer in a delightful mirroring of Emily’s earlier enlightenment. It’s very smart.

T.S.

One thought on “Emily | Review”

  1. Good to see the reviews flowing again . A fantastic review, we all enjoyed the film and its fresh take on the bronzes.

    Like

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