Emily Brontë remains one of the most mysterious figures in world literature. When she died at the age of 30 in 1848, she had written one novel and a sheaf of poems. The poems were immediately acclaimed for their “genius” but are little read today. The novel, Wuthering Heights, is a classic for the ages, being constantly rediscovered by each new generation.
Every reader is assailed by the question of how a young woman leading an isolated life on the Yorkshire moors, could have written a book of such elemental power, with sexual overtones early reviewers denounced as sheer “depravity”. The question is complicated by the many fragmented, unreliable accounts of Emily’s life and character that begin with Charlotte, who may have wanted to present a more ‘acceptable’ version of her sister, or simply been jealous of her talent.
Emily seems to have been an introvert with a complex imaginative life, who loved nature, and showed glimpses of a sharp intellect and great force of character. Beyond this, all we have is speculation – which is where Frances O’Connor’s Emily comes in. Although it deals with a real person and pays careful attention to the historical setting, it would be wrong to call the Aussie actor’s directorial debut a bio pic. O’Connor has given us an imaginative reconstruction of Emily’s life that fills in the blanks in a way some viewers will find highly presumptuous. I’m tempted to join their ranks.
O’Connor, who has also written the script, has taken hints and suggestions from the accounts of the Brontës to create a romance that will seem more or less plausible depending on how much one already knows about the subject. As a large part of a writer’s life is spent sitting in a room writing, with a bio pic there’s always a temptation to make the other bits seem more dramatic by way of compensation.
Accordingly, O’Connor has emphasised the possible tensions that existed between Emily (Emma Mackey) and Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) which find expression in a series of awkward, antagonistic moments. It leaves us with an unflattering and possibly unfair impression of Charlotte. We learn comparatively little about Emily’s relationship with her younger sister, Anne (Amelia Gething), although they were said to be inseparable.
Instead, she has played up the relationship between Emily and her ne’er-do-well brother, Branwell (Fionn Whitehead). In this film, Emily, considered “strange” by straightlaced Charlotte, is Branwell’s soulmate and boon companion. They take opium together, they slip out at night to peer through the neighbours’ windows, they hang out at the pub. In one scene they spin around in a daze in a way reminiscent of Kate Bush’s take on Wuthering Heights.
This quasi-incestuous closeness, and the image of Emily as a ‘bad girl’, does not – as far as I know – have any basis in fact. In Juliet Barker’s massive biography of the Brontës, all we learn about their relationship was that Emily wrote a poem about her brother (Stanzas To) and was said to leave a candle burning for him when he went out drinking in the evening.
Even more startling is the suggestion that Emily had a full-on love affair with the curate, William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), arguably the only eligible male in the parish. Weightman is known to have written playful Valentines to the sisters when he learned none of them had never received one. The Brontës took it in the right spirit and replied with some equally light-hearted verses, but there must have been a good deal of suppressed sexual titillation in this literary exercise.
Wiliam Weightman was clearly a flirt, but if anyone took the bait it was Charlotte rather than Emily.
From what we know about Emily – and it’s little enough – she seems to have been supremely self-absorbed. O’Connor has taken this as an invitation to imagine her as a free spirit willing to shake off every convention of the age, and indulge an appetite for sex, drugs and booze. At this stage, rock ‘n’ roll had not been invented.
We’ve seen this willingness to make up a new sexual identity for an historical figure in Francis Lee’s Ammonite (2020), in which the 19th century fossil hunter, Mary Anning, was plunged into a lesbian relationship with the wife of a scientist. There was no evidence that Mary had any sexual life whatsoever – and so it is with Emily Brontë.
We find it hard to picture a sexless existence but there must be plenty of people – either by choice or circumstance – who lead such lives. It could even be argued that Wuthering Heights is one of the great novels of sexual sublimination, the work of a passionate virgin with a vivid imagination.
In Emily Emma Mackey has clearly been given a licence to seduce. She stares out at us with wide eyes, all moody and sultry. We are invited to see her as a woman born before her time, whose nature is better suited to a free-thinking age. What may seem “strange” to the villagers, and to Charlotte, is only too familiar to us, who recognise a feminist avant la lettre. O’Connor was surely aware that Wuthering Heights was published under the male pseudonym, Ellis Bell, so it’s suprising that we see the book with Emily’s name on it. One presumes this is intended as an affirmation of identity, but it would have revealed more about her world to leave the alias intact.
Perhaps the best way to approach this film is to treat the Brontës themselves as fictional characters. It’s easier to appreciate this tale as a gothic coming-of-age fantasy set in one of those rugged, barren, landscapes that infects everyone with gloom, if not TB. The camerawork is consistently atmospheric, whether we are gazing upon the emptiness of the moors or snuggled up with the sisters in their tomb-like bedroom. There’s a story here and it’s skilfully told, but it’s almost certainly not the story of Emily Brontë.
Written & directed by Frances O’Connor
Starring: Emma Mackey, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Fionn Whitehead, Alexandra Dowling, Amelia Gething, Adrian Dunbar, Gemma Jones, Sacha Parkinson
UK/USA, M, 130 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 21 January, 2023