‘Emily’: A Biopic That is Short on Biography

Bronte purists might be disappointed.

by Adina Bernstein

Among the Bronte sistersEmily is the most mysterious. Reclusive and shy, she preferred walking on the Yorkshire Moors and the companionship of close family and friends to strangers.

The new biopic, Emily, was written and directed by Frances O’Connor. It tells the story of its title character and her relationship with her father’s curate, William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). While the rest of the family – sisters Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) and Anne (Amelia Gething), brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead), and father Patrick (Adrian Dunbar) — welcomes him with open arms, Emily (Emma Mackey) is suspicious of the new arrival.

William teeters between a disapproving paternal figure and a suitor who is quicker to recognize their growing attraction than she is. Emily is determined to keep him at arm’s length. When they finally get together, the dam breaks. But when real life intervenes, they are torn apart.

O’Connor Travels Too Far from the Facts

I get that this is fiction and not a documentary. I also get that O’Connor might have been aiming for a younger audience who are unfamiliar with the work of her subjects. However, neither Emily nor her sisters are unknown figures in the world of literature. They are figurative giants with decades of academic research and a long list of novels and scripted series based on their lives and respective tales. If others have been able to craft stories that are true to the known history while balancing their own narratives, why couldn’t she?

There are two schools of thought when it comes to reviewing this movie. If the audience knows little to nothing about the sisters, it works. If it were a standalone drama, then it would be fine. It has all of the elements of a good historical romance. However, if the audience is a Bronte fangirl (like I am), all sorts of warning signals go off. Without spoiling the film, I will say that O’Connor plays too fast and loose with the details for my comfort.

Becoming Jane Did It Better

The 2007 film, Becoming Jane, is of a similar ilk to Emily. It tells of the romance between Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway) and Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy). According to this film, Lefroy was more than an inspiration for her most famous heroes. He was the love of her life and the one that got away. Though I have yet to see enough evidence that it was nothing more than a youthful flirtation, there is enough of the truth of Austen’s life to keep this fan satisfied.

The major problem with Emily is O’Connor chose to switch Weightman’s affection from Anne to Emily. According to Bronte lore, Weightman was interested in Anne. While I understand that Emily is the main character, and therefore must be compelling, this change does not sit well with me. What I might have done is make it an Emily vs. the World story. In her time, she was a rebel and gave zero f*cks. She preferred walking on the moors with her dogs and her family rather than making small talk in a fancy drawing room. Instead of following the latest fashion, she wore dresses that were out of fashion. Unlike other young ladies, she had no interest in finding a husband and bearing children.

There Are Some Good Parts

What O’Connor does well is weave in the details of Wuthering Heights into the movie. While spending time on the moors with Branwell, her wild nature is set free. Yelling into the clear blue sky with her hair loose, this is the Emily Bronte that fans know. Channeling her literary heroine, Catherine Earnshaw, there is nothing to hold her back. Not her father, not her sisters, and not society.

I appreciated the natural chemistry between Mackey and Jackson-Cohen. I also appreciate the scenes on screen that mimic scenes from the book. It was a nice throwback to the original text and the “romance” between Catherine and Heathcliff, the book’s iconic and complicated lovers.

At the end of the day, O’Connor gets an A for effort. Her respect for her subjects and what they represent are front and center. But the changes she makes to the known tale of the Brontes are just too much for me. Next time, I’ll go elsewhere when it comes to this trio of legendary sisters.

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MovieBabble April 3, 2023 - 8:41 pm

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