de facto film reviews 3.5 stars

Far from being another musty costume period piece, Frances O’Connor’s debut feature, Emily, is more akin to Jane Campion’s arthouse dramas and Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion in just how uniquely artful they all are. Breaking through biopic trappings and cliches, with an impressionistic visual style in the vein of Andrea Arnold’s own Wuthering Heights adaptation, O’Connors examines the final years in the short life of 19th-century poet and author Emily Brontë, told through the perspective of Emily, played superbly by Emma Mackey in a first-rate performance. Exquisitely crafted, Emily unfolds with great dramatic restraint and powerhouse performances across the board.

Emily Bronte died in 1848 at age 30 just one year after her debut novel Wuthering Heights was published and released. Historically, not much has been documented of Brontë’s personal life outside of her older sister Charlotte, who made a lot of assumptions about her life through her poetry and writings. Of course, her masterpiece novel Wuthering Heights, still celebrated today for its groundbreaking romance, offers personal and vivid insights into some ill-fated forbidden love that Emily potentially endured. What’s left for the film is revisionism, but O’Connor’s film is marked with theoretical and genuine insights into Bronte’s final years, which consisted of creativity, heartbreak, and rebellion against her patriarchal father and community. O’Connor leaves the viewer with a deeply involving film that explores the social constraints that undermined romantic fulfillment in England at the time. Thematically, the film echoes Jane Campion’s excellent Bright Start, while avoiding the usual biopic trappings. Nevertheless, the film plays a sublime tribute to Bronte and honors her life, femininity, and certainly her artistry. The film unfolds with a lot of emotional payoffs and honors Bronte’s life with deep affection.

On set with Emma Mackey and the stars of the new Emily Brontë film Courtesy Bleaker Street Media

Most of the drama in the village of Haworth, within the town of Yorkshire, England, mostly takes place in the last five years or so of Emily Bronte’s life leading up to her publication of Wuthering Heights. Just before capitulating to inflammation and tuberculous, which led to her death, Emily reflects on the experiences that inspired her novel through an extended flashback that never feels muddled or disjointed. O’Connor uses Emily’s own experiences through her own subjectivity to account for her joyful and equally distressing memories and the circumstances that untangle fr them. Even though the film explores her unrequited romance, it becomes much more sinuous in the process.

The most satisfying aspect of Emily is how it explores the dynamics of her siblings. Interestingly, O’Connor minimizes Emily’s sisters, Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) and Anne (Amelia Gething), and gives more substantial portions of the narrative to Emily with her brother, Branwell (Fionn Whitehead), who is very close to Emily due to his rebellious spirit and artistic sensibilities as a painter. Another subplot involves Emily’s love affair with her French tutor, William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Coen). Charlotte drifts in and out of the narrative and becomes more of a substantial character in the third act, and she is characterized as more judgmental and pompous, certainly more of an artistic rival who is very frank in her writings that Emily keeps away from her. You can sense her relationships with her siblings, along with the doomed romance that led to a lot of her inspiration for Wuthering Heights.

Bleecker Street Buys Emma Mackey's Emily Bronte Biopic - Variety Courtesy Bleaker Street Media 

O’Connor also taps into more magical realism that channels European art-house cinema like Jean Cocteau or Carl Dreyer, with Emily doing a superstitious ritual with a ceramic mask with Anne, Charlotte, Branwell, and William and beginning to communicate with her mother and causing a window to open. This startles her sisters and sustains complete disdain by William, and Emily buries the mask in the garden with some astonishing POV imagery from the mask. The mask gives the film a more mystical tone, which helps elevate the atmosphere of the film and heightens Emily’s subjectivity. To add to the style, cinematographer Nanu Segal utilizes natural light that brings out the film’s blue color palette, and the landscape shots of nature—grass, fields, and woods work as luminous settings that reflect Emily’s longings and psyche. Segal’s compositions range from symmetry to a skillful use of wide lens shots that add to the handsome production. They are stunning, and each frame fills like a painting with her meticulously framed shots. The film’s wardrobe design by Michael O’Connor is also sumptuous, and the production design by Steve Summersgill (Inglorious Basterds, The Grand Budapest Hotel) adds lush textures to his splendid decors.

Another advantage of Frances O’Connor’s approach is how she doesn’t add progressive posturing to modernize the narrative as Sarah Polley recently did with Women Talking. O’Connor transports the viewer to the past and chronicles Emily’s artistic sensibilities and emotional vulnerabilities with sincere pathos and sheer empathy. O’Connor’s film triumphs in making a satisfying revisionist portrait of Emily Bronte’s inspirations, which more than likely developed from her anguish and joy, and how they shaped the artistry of such an essential novel. In the end, O’Connor has made an illuminating debut feature. She certainly knows how to tell a story, and she has a skillful ability to be affecting and understated, allowing many small moments and emotional depths to flourish for her emotionally fragile protagonist. O’Connor is a revelation, as is the lead performance by Emma Mackey. I’m quite eager to see what these great talents embark on next.

Emily is now playing in limited theaters and will opens in Metro-Detroit theaters Thursday, February 23rd.