Film Review: “Emily” — Of Moors and Madness

By Peg Aloi

For director Frances O’Connor, the Gothic novelist is an artist who casts off repressive social norms and uses words to evoke (and exorcise) demons of terrible natural beauty.

Emily, written and directed by Frances O’Connor. Screening at AMC Assembly Row 12, Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner Theater, and other cinemas throughout New England.

Emma Mackey and Oliver Jackson-Cohen in Emily. Photo: Bleecker Street.

The lives of novelists and poets are a frequent subject for cinematic storytelling. Powerful literature, the kind that appeals to readers over the centuries, inevitably inspires visual and emotional fantasies. And that has led to film adaptations: lending concrete voices and visuals to what had been creatures of the imagination, confined to the page. Wuthering Heights is one of those novels that many of us (outside of English majors) might have first encountered as a film, starring Merle Oberon and Lawrence Olivier as the doomed lovers Catherine and Heathcliff. Emily Brontë’ wrote only one novel (under the pen name Ellis Bell) and it is considered one of English literature’s great Gothic romances. Brontë died young, at 30, and in Emily, screenwriter and director Frances O’Connor has spun an origin story for her brilliance that plumbs the emotional depths of her life, including familial strife and tumultuous romance.

The film’s opening credits play over dramatic vocal music, creating an odd, tense mood, and the first scene establishes a domestic life rife with conflict. In the Brontë family home, Emily (Sex Education’s Emma Mackey) has given a copy of her newly-published novel to her sister Charlotte, author of another Gothic romantic classic, Jane Eyre. Charlotte (played by Alexandra Dowling) is disgusted with what she has read and asks why Emily would write such a book, full of such horrible people who only care about themselves. Emily is silent and stoic at this outburst. Wuthering Heights was accepted for publication not long after Jane Eyre was published. The success of Charlotte’s book (written under the pen name Currer Bell) delayed the printing of Emily’s novel. The film hints at the artistic competition among the Brontë siblings. Anne also wrote a novel, Agnes Grey (with the pen name Acton Bell), and like Emily and Charlotte, was a published poet. The undercurrent of tension establishes an intriguing dynamic.

The next scene goes back in time to Emily’s youth. Middle sister Emily also has a younger brother, Branwell (Fionn Whitehead of Dunkirk and Bandersnatch). Two younger sisters (Elizabeth and Maria) perished from tuberculosis — they are barely mentioned. The rest of Emily plays out chronologically, centering on the Brontë children and their struggles with a strict, mostly motherless upbringing. Their father (Adrian Dunbar) serves as parish rector and he expects his children to make their way in the world with unquestioned dignity and decorum. Of course, Emily is a black sheep and Branwell is a handful: contrary, lazy and, when he grows older, a willful libertine.

Emily is shy and socially awkward. She’s sent to a school for young women to train as a governess, but is forced to come home when she’s found huddling in a closet, having suffered some sort of  emotional breakdown. No doubt modern psychiatry would suggest counseling or medication for a troubled soul like hers, but Emily must endure being shamed. Once home, she and Branwell, who has also failed at his latest endeavor, console each other with long rambles on the moors: they not only seek solace in the beauty of nature but skulk about, peering into neighbors’ windows by night. Their closeness becomes, in part, a model for the childhood friendship of Catherine and Heathcliff. Some historians suggest that the relationship might have been incestuous, but the film shies away from this interpretation.

Charlotte and Emily have a fraught relationship, established in the film’s prologue but, unfortunately, this undercurrent of jealousy and resentment is a side piece, insufficiently examined. Charlotte often calls her “Emily Jane,’ hinting that she might have inspired Jane Eyre’s protagonist. Both sisters have literary ambitions; Charlotte is much better suited to earn a living through the vocation of teaching. One day Charlotte lets it slip that “in town” (the tiny village they live near) Emily is called “the strange one.” When a new curate, William Weightman, comes to the parish, a dinner is held for him. Afterwards, the Brontë siblings invite him to play a genial party game, sort of like Twenty Questions with hints of the spiritualism craze that later swept Victorian England. They all take turns wearing a clay mask that had been owned by Emily’s mother. Participants ask “who are you,” and try to guess the person’s identity from clues. When Emily dons the mask, she channels her dead mother in a most convincing and eerie manner. Weightman is immediately fascinated.

Determined to help Emily make something of herself, her father insists she take French lessons from the new curate. As played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen (The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor), Weightman knows that he cuts a dashing, charismatic figure. But he also has a gift for delivering thoughtful sermons. He starts up a friendship (of sorts) with Branwell, and challenges Emily’s defiant attitude. He discovers a poem Emily has written, which increases his infatuation with her. A fateful afternoon finds Emily and Weightman caught in the rain and taking shelter in an abandoned cottage. A passionate romance blossoms, but the curate is overtaken by guilt. A dejected Emily heads off, once more, to continue her education. Branwell’s obvious jealousy and vindictiveness also complicates matters.

The excellent cast is more than up to the task posed by this historical biopic. The chemistry between Emily and Weightman is electric, and the scenes of their sexual awakening are rendered with lush, sensual detail. Abel Korzeniowski’s (A Single Man, Nocturnal Animals) score is mostly compelling, but there are times when it feels inappropriately jolting. This unevenness in tone is also partly due to Frances O’Connor’s somewhat disjointed screenplay. The narrative is chronological, but the defining events in Emily’s young life are often dramatized in oddly random or abrupt ways. It would have been much more effective to build up to these epiphanic moments by exploring the unusual Brontë family dynamic a bit more deeply. Still, the film’s sweeping visuals serve as partial compensation, capturing the natural marvels of the landscape that inspired such iconic writing. The stone houses, rolling pastures, spreading trees, and storm-swept moors become characters in this origin story — which becomes the inspiration for one of English literature’s great doomed romances. For O’Connor (an Australian-British actress with a respectable career), the Gothic novelist is an artist who casts off repressive social norms and uses words to evoke (and exorcise) demons of terrible natural beauty.

As with Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, there is an obligatory scene in which we see Emily writing her novel, by hand and by candlelight. In O’Connor’s interpretation, Wuthering Heights is a work born of grief and rebellion, a declaration of a misfit’s right to be who she is, and a paean to lost love. Despite some occasional missteps of mood and underdeveloped subtexts, Emily traverses this vision of liberation with enormous sensitivity and daring.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.


  1. Gerald Peary on March 5, 2023 at 1:11 pm

    Very nice review, Peg. I wonder how you feel about the movie choosing to move far from biography in inventing Emily Bronte’s love affair. I found that most disconcerting, too much fictionalizing.

  2. Dee Rush on December 18, 2023 at 3:20 pm

    Emily is a beautiful looking movie. And it featured some first-rate performances. But as a biopic of Emily Brontë and her family, I thought it sucked. It’s one thing for a biopic or even a historical drama to get some things wrong. But O’Connor did more than that. She essentially re-wrote Brontë’s life and the lives of her siblings — especially her sisters. Why? I don’t know. Frankly, I thought it was a cheap move and find it disturbing that so many critics were willing to let it slide.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts