REVIEW: ‘Emily’ (2022) Captures the Modern Sensibilities of the Victorian Period

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“A sensible portrayal of a modern period drama”

Frances O’Connor’s Emily is a biographical film loosely based on the unfairly short-lived life of Emily Brontë, the beloved novelist who wrote Wuthering Heights. A love letter to Brontë’s imaginative life, Emily captures the sensible nature of her emotions and possible struggles with mental health. All of what is known about Emily comes from her older sister, Charlotte Brontë, another writer best known for Jane Eyre. A sensible, modern drama set in the Victorian period, this film is the only story that comes close to depicting Emily’s tragic history, from her affair with the assistant curate to the loneliness she faced in her life. 

The film begins with Emily (Emma Mackey), referred to as “the strange one” by the residents of her village, Haworth in West Yorkshire. From the very beginning, the young woman is shown to have an active imagination. Her strict father, Patrick Brontë (Adrian Dunbar) prefers that his daughter pursue a teaching career rather than become a writer since it is more appropriate for women at that time. Despite her shy nature, Emily is forced to submit to these rules set by her father. She constantly tries to steer away from her father’s pride, Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling), who is also a writer and competitive to the point where she brings her own sister down. Emily and her younger sister, Anne Brontë (Amelia Gething) whisper stories of made-up land called Gondal. Her brother, Branwell (Fionn Whitehead) is a tortured soul who loses himself due to his lack of accomplishments as a writer and actor, and provides material for her novel. Another person who gives Emily inspiration for her novel is her father’s assistant curate, William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Against Emily’s wishes, her father forces her to learn French from William, and they begin a love affair that threatens to overwhelm her.

O’Connor’s iteration of the beloved novelist is a sensitive portrayal of her wild nature. It is also an impressive directorial debut that spans the novelist’s years and focuses on the romantic affair that changes her life. Emily writes her book, immerses herself in sexual awakening, and leisurely consumes opium and heroin. 

In a sense, Emily is an original story by O’Connor, as she creates a story loosely based on Charlotte’s accounts of her young sister. There is no evidence of Emily dealing with mental health, as it wasn’t recognised or properly diagnosed during that time. Mackey’s performance is ferocious. In many scenes, she appears sullen or mortified by her surroundings, and occasionally portrays an understandable likeness to Emily’s sensibilities. O’Connor celebrates the dramatic and magnificent period drama with a star like Mackey, who steals glances with her striking eyes; it’s hard to look away from the screen. 

A great directorial debut by O’Connor,  Emily is a sensible portrayal of a modern period drama. Rather than the post-Bridgerton stories that portray characters in a revised, fantastical British society, it is a modern look that portrays the misunderstood Brontë sister in a more delicate manner. It touches on the delicate yet heartbreaking aspects of her life without making it feel shrewd so that it fits a contemporary audience. Forlorn silences, haunting visuals, and awkward touches and glances make Emily a wonderful interpretation, if not, a reimagining of the beloved novelist’s life.