Greetings again from the darkness. These days, it seems like we know entirely too much about the personal and professional lives of writers, actors … well, just about everyone. Of course, it wasn’t always like that. And taking that to an extreme is the all-too-brief life of Emily Bronte. Imagine if someone wrote a book today as popular and terrific as “Wuthering Heights”. We would likely know the name of their pet, their spouse, and where they eat lunch. For Emily Bronte, the details are not only scarce, but also not totally trustworthy, given that much of it comes from her older sister who had a touch of envy, or at least a competitive edge.
Frances O’Connor (known as an actor in such films as AI: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE and MANSFIELD PARK) chose a dramatic imagining of Emily’s life as her first feature film as writer-director. Emma Mackey (DEATH ON THE NILE, 2022) stars as Emily Bronte, and turns in a really nice and believable performance as someone whom we can only imagine her life in the 19th century. The reputation is that of someone who was socially awkward, and a bit of a sickly recluse. We do know that she died at age 30. We can also relate to the opening scene when Charlotte asks an ill Emily “How did you write it?” (referring to “Wuthering Heights”).
In fact, filmmaker O’Connor likely based her entire script on that question, and what she presents is quite interesting – regardless of how accurate it might (or might not) be. Emily and her younger sister Anne (Amelia Gething) spend days constructing stories together, and then Emily takes it further by writing poetry. As the eldest sibling, Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) is the favorite of their father (Adrian Dunbar), a priest at the local church. Emily is known as “the strange one”, despite her beautiful piano playing, and mostly secret writing skills.
Emily and her brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead, DUNKIRK, 2017) have an unusual bond. He’s a troubled young man weakened in spirit by spirits (the alcoholic kind). All of the dynamics shift quickly when William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, MR MALCOLM’S LIST, 2022) arrives as the new curate. His sermons are a form of poetry, and this intrigues all Bronte sisters, especially Emily. As Weightman teaches her French, their relationship transforms from one of butting heads to one of clandestine intimacy … and both are changed.
Although the film does explore the effect of the mother’s previous death, in real life, this family faced even more grief from death … including Emily’s at age 30. The sibling rivalry is a believable aspect, as Emily wrote “Wuthering Heights” and Charlotte wrote “Jane Eyre” (and a portion of “Emma”). With such a legacy, we have been left to wonder what became of Emily’s other writings, and Ms. O’Connor offers up one idea. The proof of Emily’s brilliance and talent is on the page for all to read, however, we will never truly know her inspirations and desires. Kudos to Frances O’Connor and Emma Mackey for filling in the gap … even if we will never know how close or far from the truth they landed.
Opening February 17, 2023