Emily is one of the strongest directorial debuts in years. A spellbinding, vibrant film that beautifully combines fact with fiction for an elevation of the biopic genre. Emily is a haunting portrait of artistic inspiration.
Emily Brontë is one of the most mysterious literature figures as we know very little about her life. In her directorial and writing debut, Frances O’Connor sets out not to answer our questions about Brontë, but to show the world that surrounded her. Emily is the perfect vessel for the Emily Brontë story as the film shows how writing would be the only outlet for everything she feels. As her emotions flood through her, Emily finds writing as her escapism from both her thoughts and society’s hand pushing her into a life she does not want.
In the film, we see Emily (Emma Mackey) as the black sheep in her family. She is ridiculed by her ambitious siblings and even ostracized by her father (Adrian Dunbar). While the Brontë sisters are clearly sheltered, Emily uses her wild imagination to tell stories to her younger sister Anne (Amelia Gething) of other worlds and lives they could lead. The older brother of the Brontë siblings, Branwell (Fionn Whitehead), is another creative type; we see him as a painter and eventually an aspiring writer. He too strives to live by romantic ideals that are not what society is guiding them to follow. Emily bonds with Branwell over their desire for more out of life.
Her relationship with her older sister Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) is tense. Charlotte’s love for Emily is full of passive-aggressive connotations and leads into jealously. While audiences may never know the true relationship between the sisters, O’Connor brings such life to the story it feels like true sisterhood dynamics. As we watch not only her family interact with Emily but the townspeople around her as well, you see how she does not belong and feels ostracized. Not just what could perhaps be paralyzing anxiety but her desire to be more than what society is forcing on her keeps her from truly feeling a sense of belonging in her home.
The town is shaken up in Emily with the arrival of a young, handsome curate William (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), which sends all the young women into a tizzy, including the Brontë sisters. While Charlotte works what feels like overtime to describe William’s sermons as poetic and intelligent, Emily wants to know what goes in his head, if he truly believes what he’s preaching. As Emily keeps William at arm’s length, this only piques his interest in her. He can see she’s struggling with any sort of newness around her, but that she’s interested in not being left out as she struggles to decide what to do with her life. Charlotte has promised Emily a teaching position, but the audience and William can see this is not what Emily wants. While society was not kind to women in the 19th century, it was even harsher on women who tried to defy the social norms. As Emily lingers further from what is expected of her, everyone comes down harder on her. Charlotte’s jealousy becomes tangible as their father’s frustration grows more apparent with every decision Emily makes throughout the film.
From their first scene together, Mackey and Jackson-Cohen have palpable chemistry even when just exchanging lingering glances at one another. When the two finally share a kiss, there is an electricity between them. The use of sound in Emily truly transports you to another world and you feel in Emily’s shoes as the two find comfort in each other’s arms, no matter how forbidden. The direction used in the intimate scenes creates some of the most sensual love scenes on screen in years.
While typically period pieces tend to feature forbidden love plots, Emily’s love scenes feel lived in and full of passion. While Mackey and Jackson-Cohen are obviously physically beautiful, their characters’ lust for one another comes through their performances. Not just from the way they kiss one another or lay together but how the two play off one another and fit into each other. There is something to say about how impactful love scenes are when directed by a woman.
Mackey delivers a truly ‘a star in the making’ performance. What she is able to portray with just her eyes alone is more than some actors are able to do with decades of experience under their belts. When Mackey is on screen, she’s impossible to look away from. Her performance is both all-consuming physically and internally brewing underneath. She’s able to bring to the surface Emily’s inner struggles without ever distracting from the story at hand. Mackey portrays Emily in all her facets from the woman struggling with depression to the woman aching for more from life to the fun, passionate Emily who seeks out running in the rain or whispering stories with her sisters.
One of the best parts of Emily is the way in which O’Connor has written the Brontë sisters. When the girls fight, it feels exactly how close-knit sisters fight. When the girls are giggling in a twin bed they share, it feels identical to how sisters want to stay close to one another. The arguments shared between the sisters hurt perhaps the most in the film, while when they are there for one another, it feels as the most powerful relationship dynamic in the story. O’Connor is able to display the overwhelming grief of the loss of a parent in various scenes shared between the sisters without devoting too much time to the loss of their mother, which happened early in their lives. The most prominent scene details Emily wearing a mask in a game, in which she startles her siblings and their guests. The siblings are so close to one another and share the same sense of loss, but O’Connor brilliantly highlights how differently grief effects each sibling.
Emily is a masterclass at all technical aspects coming together to beautifully build a new world. From the haunting score by Abel Korzeniowsk to Nanu Segal’s cinematography, you feel engulfed in the world of Emily Brontë. Michael O’Connor’s costume design is impeccable as you can always see Emily trying to fit in but standing out from the crowd. O’Connor delivers one of the strongest writing and directorial debuts in years. Emily has such a strong hand guiding audiences through a tender, yet ferocious story.
While Emily on paper may be a biopic, the film rises above falling into any typical biopic tropes. The film is almost a spiritual experience of Emily Brontë’s life on screen. While we may not know much about Emily Brontë’s life, Emily feels like the best explanation of where she came from and how her novel Wuthering Heights came to be.
Should be Considered: Best Lead Actress (Emma Mackey), Best Supporting Actor (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Best Original Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography
Where to Watch: In Select Theaters
Lives in LA with her husband, daughter and dog. Misses Arclight, loves iced vanilla coffees.
Favorite Director: Darren Aronofsky