Saturday 13 May 2023

Review: Frances O’Connor's 'Emily'

The new film Emily is often described as “a part-fictional” portrait of Emily Brontë. When I saw it recently, I found it only partly satisfying. 

The film is directed by Frances O’Connor who, more than twenty years ago, starred as Fanny Price in a creative Mansfield Park adaptation, which departed from the novel in many ways and transformed the least popular Jane Austen heroine into a more spirited and almost feisty character while including feminist and post-colonial themes as well. 

Frances O'Connor and Emma Mackey

Patricia Rozema (the director of that 1999 Mansfield Park adaptation) has stated that her film should not be seen as a classic adaptation of Jane Austen’s work: “It’s a Patricia Rozema film. My job as an artist is to provide a fresh view.” 

It seems as if Frances O’Connor shares this view with her once-director; in her semi-biopic Emily, O’Connor takes quite some creative liberties with the life of Emily Brontë such as her getting a tattoo on her arm, opium use, and sexual relations with her father’s curate William Weightman as the cherry on top of the cake… It’s understandable that these liberties have agonized quite a few people in the Brontë-community to the extent that some people refuse to actually even watch the film. 

Emily Brontë has always been an enigma, even when she was alive people around her were puzzled by her somewhat eccentric behavior and extremely shy nature. Her only novel, Wuthering Heights, now one of the most beloved classics in English literature, caused quite some controversy when it was published because of the savagery and cruelty of the characters, the sexual nature of the book as well as some of its themes and values. For example, Graham’s Lady Magazine wrote in a contemporary review: “It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.” 

In the years to come – when it became known that this violent and passionate story had been written by a reclusive young lady, a curate’s daughter no less, who lived in a very small village in Yorkshire – there was a lot of speculation and attempts to make sense of this (including one theory that claims Branwell is actually the author). This question is also the driving force behind O’Connor’s film, as in the opening scene Charlotte asks at her sister’s deathbed: How did you write Wuthering Heights

O’Connor’s film can be seen as a personal interpretation of Emily’s life. She is not interested in reality; she gives us a fictional account of what could have happened. In an interview with the Guardian, she stated that “if you’re going to tell a story now, I think it’s good for it to speak to women in a way that’s alive, rather than as something they’re looking at from behind a very respectful glass case.” 

That’s a bold decision and I have to say that during the first part of the movie, it worked for me. For the first part of the movie, I found myself emerged in the setting – the wild and rugged moors, the wind, the rain, the birds, the gorgeous soundtrack that went with it, the strong emotions and the focus on Emily and Branwell. Furthermore, Emma Mackey who plays Emily does a terrific job. I’m sure that this film will bring a new generation of readers to Wuthering Heights, and even to the other Brontë books, and that in itself surely is an admirable feat. 

However, for this viewer, it was the second part of the film when things somehow started to sink. Enter: the love story plot. There is no evidence whatsoever that Emily had a sexual affair with her father’s curate, William Weightman. In fact, in her seminal biography of the Brontës, Juliet Barker wrote that there are some (minor) arguments for believing that Anne may have felt attracted towards the curate (a poem she wrote after his death, for instance), but that it was Charlotte especially (because of what she wrote in some of her letters at the time and her studies for a portrait of the curate) “who fell for his charms.” The romance plot in the film feels forced and even a bit silly in how fast and unbelievable it all is rushed to the dramatic ending. 

Emily is often hailed as a feminist film, but I somehow find the idea that Emily needed a sexual affair with a man in order to be able to write Wuthering Heights, and Weightman’s encouraging words to finish it, a bit simple and even reductive. The idea that writers cannot write well about something that they have not experienced themselves is outdated. The Anne Hathaway vehicle Becoming Jane (2007) suffered from the same problem.

There is also a strong suggestion in the film that Emily was desperate for her father’s approval (the Reverend is depicted as a mean stonehearted father), whereas her relation with her two sisters is actually more or less overlooked in the film. Moreover, Charlotte (and Anne too) is a flat character, even a bit superficial and evil, with no emotional depth to her. This could be explained by the fact that the movie is about Emily’s story and experiences, not Charlotte’s; but as stated above, the same problem holds for Emily as she seems to have become a vessel for a love story in this movie. 

When I walked out of the movie theatre, I had mixed feelings, I somehow liked parts of the film, but the overall thought that lingered was that Emily deserves a better film. A woman’s (and writer’s) life does not need a dramatic love story to be interesting. I fear that somehow I was not able to exercise the concept of that other great Romantic writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s (willing) suspension of disbelief, during this movie because my love for Emily, her sisters and their writings is just stronger than for what the film had to offer me.

  Pauline Ghyselen

Barker, Juliet (1994) The Brontës. Phoenix Giants.
Byrne, Paula (2017) The Genius of Jane Austen: Her Love of Theatre and Why She Is a Hit in Hollywood. ch.11, HarperCollins

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Other views on Emily

Mixed feelings

For those who are not familiar with the Brontë story and the biography of Emily Brontë in particular this is most probably a wonderful romantic film. However, for us Brontë fans, and especially Emily Brontë fans (like me), who know what is known for a fact about the Brontës and about Emily, the film is sometimes very annoying and disturbing. 

The biography timeline is not always respected, the love story between Emily and William Weightman is completely invented, exaggerated and not correct, and some scenes in the film (e.g. the mask scene) are really bizarre. 

Did I like it? I don’t really know: I have very mixed feelings about this film. 

  Marina Saegerman

A second viewing

The first time I saw the film Emily, it was at home on a small screen. And I wasn’t impressed or deeply moved by the movie. The fact that the producers didn’t stick to her real life and character disturbed me. The character of Emily was beautifully dressed in the film, while I read that even in Brussels she didn’t bother to follow the current fashion of dressing. 

In the beginning of the film, we learn to know a shy Emily, but in her interactions with her brother, Branwell, and the curate William Weightman we see a free-spirited, daring woman. The love story with Weightman was too bold for a shy person, I found. I felt disappointed and thought that the film To Walk Invisible helped me more to be acquainted with the three Brontë sisters. 

Then I saw the film again, this time in the cinema. I had another experience. I let myself be immersed by the film and I enjoyed seeing the moors, the Brontë siblings and the partly imaginative story of Frances O’Connor. I realized that Emily is a deeply layered film. 

According to O’Connor, it was Emily’s love story with Weightman – plus Branwell’s influence and Emily’s use of opium – that sparked her genius to write Wuthering Heights. But I find it a strange idea, Emily who used opium, just like the consummation of her love with Weightman. 

I found it interesting to see another Emily now than I had in mind after reading biographies. It enhances my interest in Emily Brontë to get closer to who she really was. Was she rebellious in her way of living or just in her writing? The scene with the mask, which I at first found so strange, reminded me in my second viewing of the story of Catherine’s ghost, moaning at a window during stormy weather in Wuthering Heights

  Lucie Craen

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