Rated R. At the Coolidge Corner and Landmark Kendall Square.
The first great film of 2023, writer-director Frances O’Connor’s “Emily” tackles the short life story of the great English author Emily Bronte of “Wuthering Heights” fame. Originally published in 1847 under her pen name Ellis Bell, “Wuthering Heights” remains one of the greatest Gothic romances ever written. O’Connor, who played the female lead in “Mansfield Park” (1999) and “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” (2001), has forged a gripping biographical film set in the Yorkshire moors, a windswept collection of heather-covered hills and dales.
At the Bronte Parsonage, siblings Emily (Emma Mackey, “Death on the Nile”), Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling, “Game of Thrones:), Anne (Amelia Gething) and sole male Branwell (Fionn Whitehead, “Dunkirk”), the drunken, opium-addicted family wastrel, live with their widowed vicar father Patrick (Adrian Dunbar). Emily and Charlotte write poetry and stories and aspire to more. Branwell also has literary ambitions. He attends the Royal Academy of Arts before being expelled. Charlotte and Emily are sent to a school to become teachers. But Emily has some kind if breakdown and is sent home. There, she meets the new curate William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). In his sermons, he displays a poetic sensibility that appeals to Emily. Her father Patrick befriends William and welcomes him into the Bronte home. One evening, Emily, Charlotte, Branwell and William engage in a role-playing game involving a mask. Emily pretends to be the Bronte children’s dead mother. The wind blows open a window. Everyone is frightened and upset. Emily seems… inspired.
Films about artists often concentrate on their personal lives, which tells us almost nothing about their art. O’Connor has decided to turn Bronte’s personal life into a version of “Wuthering Heights” in order to show us how the artist perhaps took the raw material of her own existence and turned it into a historical bestseller that continues to cast its dark Gothic spell over new generations. The story of Heathcliff and Cathy’s tortured love affair is mirrored in the relationship between Emily and William. At first, the illicit sex seems to work wonders for Emily, who has always been “the odd fish.”
Before her affair with William, Emily becomes closer to Branwell, drinking with him and his buddies and spying on a neighboring family, mirroring events in “Wuthering Heights.” Wuthering is a local term denoting certain atmospheric conditions in damp and windy Yorkshire. In an abandoned farmhouse, Emily and William rapturously pull their clothes off and make love. Driven by guilt, curate William suddenly breaks it off. But he refuses to explain himself, and Emily threatens to become unhinged by the sudden end to their affair. All William will offer is that, “There is something ungodly,” in her. That ungodliness is surely her genius.
O’Connor’s film argues that life is the leaden material that artists transmute into gold. Mackey is an undeniable wonder as Bronte. Like the classic novel, “Emily” turns life into a great Gothic thriller.
(“Emily” contains sexually suggestive scenes and drug use)
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