Tuesday 23 May 2023

Frances O’Connor’s ‘Emily’ and the French connection

Frances O’Connor’s film Emily is full of surprises. This is perhaps only to be expected in a movie that the writer-director herself describes as a story inspired by the Brontës’ lives, not factually based on them – a fictional story inspired by real-life people. 

For me, one of the film’s more agreeable surprises is how much French there is in it. Not only are we startled to find Patrick’s curate William Weightman, with some difficulty, unlacing Emily Brontë’s corset in a scene of passion as they embark on a love affair; we are also taken aback to find him tutoring her in French in a deserted Haworth schoolroom. 

French crops up in this movie from the start. I watched it in a Brussels cinema in the original version with subtitles in French and Dutch and was amused to see the French subtitles disappear from the screen at regular intervals as the actors broke into (sometimes quite fluent) French. 

Early on in the proceedings, Emily, accused of being ‘different’ and ‘strange’ and of not making herself useful enough around the house, mutters in excuse that she is ‘working on her French.’ French makes an appearance in the film’s much-commented mask scene, at which Weightman is present. Each participant takes it in turn to hide behind a mask and pretend to be someone else, the others trying to guess who it is by asking questions. 

This is based on the real-life mask episode well known to Brontë lovers. One day when the children were small, their father asked them questions and got them to answer from behind a mask to encourage them to speak out without timidity. The Brontë children’s answers were thoughtful and precocious in the extreme. Asked what she most wanted, Anne Brontë, then about four years old, answered ‘Age and experience.’ Asked what was the best way of spending her time, Maria, the eldest, who died in childhood, replied ‘By laying it out in preparation for a happy eternity.’ 

The mask game in the film is much more fun than this until Emily pretends to be her mother returned from the dead to address her children and the game ends in tears. Before this, however, the use of French comes up again as Charlotte pretends to be Marie Antoinette and the others ask her ‘Aimez-vous les brioches?’ 

Another episode in the film involving French is also based on a real-life incident, when the three girls receive Valentine cards from Weightman. This was a gesture typical of a man who not only flirted with every girl he met but was kind-hearted and loved by everyone who knew him. The messages in the real-life cards were in English. But in the film, they’re in French. 

Several times in the film Charlotte addresses herself to Emily in French, encouraging her to improve in the language. Once Weightman is Emily’s tutor, it is not just her French that improves. Like so much in the film, having him as a French teacher is an imaginative jumbling up of real-life people and situations, since Emily was in fact taught by Constantin Heger in Brussels and it was Charlotte, not Emily, who fell in love with the French tutor. At the start of the cinematic tutoring, a stern Weightman questions Emily in French about his latest sermon. As their relationship moves on from the schoolroom, they sometimes use French in more intimate settings. 

Emma Mackey as Emily

While this ‘French tuition’ is going on, Charlotte, away from home in a dreary teaching job, receives a teasing letter in which Emily tells her that she is enjoying her home education and becoming more and more fluent in French. When Charlotte returns home and speaks French to her sister to test her, Emily accuses her of speaking the language in order to belittle and mock her. Emily then addresses Charlotte in fluent French, her new-found proficiency bearing out her claim to have made considerable progress in the language under Weightman’s tuition. 

Emily decides to accompany Charlotte to Brussels even though her French has progressed so much she hardly seems to need a continental stay to perfect it. Towards the end of the film, we briefly see the two sisters at what is supposed to be the Pensionnat Heger receiving the news of Weightman’s death from cholera. I found this glimpse of a European school rather charming because of, rather than despite, the improbably over-the-top interior décor. The Pensionnat was a pleasant enough place, but I doubt that its walls were quite as laden with gilt-framed pictures or its staircases as richly-carpeted as in the film. Charlotte and Emily are glimpsed sitting with other well-dressed young ladies round a table in what looks like a drawing room rather than a schoolroom; presumably, though, some kind of tutoring is taking place. The sisters read the letter bringing the news about Weightman at a table in a conservatory crammed with plants. The contrast between the Haworth scenes and these glimpses of elegance and luxury in the Belgian capital could not be greater. 

Emily’s European stay is cut short by Aunt Branwell’s illness and death, following closely on Weightman’s, and she returns to the Parsonage – presumably with even more fluent French than when she left it. 

Before I saw this film, I knew next to nothing about Emma Mackey, the actress who plays Emily, and it came as a surprise to find that she is the daughter of a French father and English mother and grew up in France. In interviews for French media, she rattles away in incredibly rapid French about her role as Emily. Amusingly, in the film she has to play Emily learning French and speaking it with a strong English accent. 

Oliver Jackson-Cohen
And what about Oliver Jackson-Cohen, the actor who plays Weightman? He speaks perfect French in the movie. It’s so rare for British actors to have such foreign language skills I wondered whether he had been dubbed or simply well coached. Not a bit of it. I now know from his Wikipedia entry that he ‘attended the French lycée in London and claims to have a slight French accent’! On his father’s side he comes from a Jewish family that moved to France in the 1950s. 

Whether one likes or hates the film and the artistic licence it deliberately takes with Brontë biography, it has pleasures to offer and for me its French connection is one of them. Many Brontë movies focus almost exclusively on the Haworth and Yorkshire background: stormy weather and northern accents. It’s refreshing to see a film in which the atmosphere is softened by a warmer, lighter air blown in from the Continent. 

We know from Emily and Charlotte’s essays written in Brussels that they were competent French speakers. Charlotte’s novels are full of French; all her fictional heroes and heroines speak it, either as native speakers or students of the language. In her novel Shirley, French tuition takes place. Weightman’s tuition of Emily in French, like the instruction he gives her in other skills, is a flight of a film director’s imagination, but the sisters’ interest in foreign languages – which is what brought them to Brussels – is no fantasy. 

 Helen MacEwan

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