My expectations for Emily were low. The film fictionalizes the period in 19th-century author Emily Brontë’s short life during which she wrote her one and only masterpiece, Wuthering Heights (1847). The trailers promised a giggling Brontë frolicking on the Yorkshire moors before a steamy romance purportedly answers the question asked by her equally famous sister, Charlotte, “How did you write Wuthering Heights?” With its hot-pink cursive title script, I feared that here, again, we were in for a movie that reduces a “spinster” author’s genius to her feelings for some dude, a la Becoming Jane (2007), which attributes Jane Austen’s talent to a (historically dubious) love affair. Or, worse, we could have been in for the girlbossification of a literary powerhouse a la the 2022 adaptation of Austen’s Persuasion, whose script sounds more like a Gen Z “cool girl” rom-com than an honest study of regret and second chances. As a scholar of 19th-century women authors, I have already been perturbed by this trend of flattening their stories into shallow teen dramas that slot comfortably between Bridgerton and Gossip Girl. Thank God Emily at least attempts to break that mold.
Perhaps I should have known I was in good hands. Emily is the directorial debut of Frances O’Connor, herself a staple of 19th-century dramas like the mature, racially conscious Mansfield Park (1999). O’Connor brings us a complicated Emily Brontë, played by an adept Emma Mackey, whose legendary “strangeness” is intriguingly coded as neurodivergence: Emily avoids eye contact and is stymied by others’ social expectations. The romance with a conflicted curate (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is handled with care not to render Brontë’s real life as the direct model for Wuthering Heights. The film’s allusions to the novel’s contents center, rather, on Brontë’s relationship with her brother, Branwell, in a nod to the quasi-incestuous nature of Catherine and Heathcliff’s romance.
The romance offered by Emily, however, does suffer from several plot contrivances and banalities that mean it would never compete with the unhinged Wuthering Heights. But perhaps that is what saves it from being another Becoming Jane: it doesn’t really attempt to explain the origins of that masterpiece. Even Emily’s lover (far from being a Heathcliff) is baffled by the weird, “ungodly” eroticism of her poetry, and, in one of the few scenes that depict her actually writing, it is the starkly beautiful nature scene outside Emily’s window that provides the real inspiration. If one does not look to Emily to adhere too faithfully to historical truth or, indeed, to depict what actual writing is like, then it is a satisfying—or at least benign—story.
On the one hand, Emily does not do justice to the fiery, iconoclastic genius behind Wuthering Heights, but on the other hand, its pleasures deserve acknowledgment. Could any film, after all, portray the actual, uncinematic process of literary inspiration and creation, reading, and writing? Perhaps, if they attempt to avoid misogynist tropes like O’Connor seems to, the worst sin of films like Emily is in wishing that our beloved “spinsters” like Austen and Brontë received in their own lives the soul-stirring love they depict. Can we blame them? R, 130 min.