Emily: Movie Review

Review by: Stacey O’Carroll

Writer/Director: Frances O’Connor

Available: Selected cinemas


Everyone’s strange if you look at them for long enough.” Branwell Brontë, Emily (2022)

For many years, I have watched the talented Frances O’Connor act in various quirky Australian films. So, imagine my delight when I discovered O’Connor wrote the new Emily Brontë movie, Emily, a film also her directorial debut. As soon as O’Connor’s saturated dark imagery of Emily appeared, I was immersed in the West Yorkshire moors and the gothic romance of Emily Brontë.

Emily is a beautiful and haunting fictionalised biography of the talented life of Emily Brontë (Emma Mackey). The movie explores a fictionalised romance between Brontë (Mackey) and William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) that might have inspired Wuthering Heights. The romance builds powerfully until miscommunication and jealousy cut a rather deep gash when Emily (Mackey) and William (Jackson-Cohen) are betrayed by her opium-addicted, debauchery-loving brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead). Because of the inflicted grief, the siblings’ once-tight bond is shattered, and the audience feels immense heartbreak alongside Brontë.

The cast is perfect, bringing their characters to life with depth, complexity and respect. Both Emma Mackey (Emily) and Oliver Jackson-Cohen (William Weightman) deliver nuanced and engaging performances with understated looks and subtle body language that build romantic tension. A look conveys far deeper emotion in many scenes than any well-crafted dialogue could ever express. However, there are some scenes where subtlety slips into lost context, and unheard conversation leads to audience confusion.

Filmed in the real Haworth parsonage (now Brontë Parsonage Museum), the actual locations provide authenticity to a movie based on limited information. O’Connor deftly weaves the known fact with imagined relationships and potential inspiration for Wuthering Heights into a believable story within this backdrop. However, Emily is more than just a romantic drama; it is also a metaphorical and narrative exploration of family dynamics and relationships that formed a complex and mysterious author.

Emily may not be what the audience expects, given the plethora of joyful 19th-century screen adaptations. However, reminiscent of the BBC’s gothic-style adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South (2004), O’Conner goes deeper into the harsh, grey and bitter world of Emily Brontë and 19th-century Yorkshire life. The romanticism and imaginative world are immersive thanks to O’Connor’s screen poetics and skill.

Throughout Emily, a cinema verité filming style is used, effectively creating unease and movement. Combined with the eerie locations and haunting soundtrack, O’Connor successfully creates tension and anticipation of the tragedy to come. There are, however, small pockets of levity and humour that O’Connor blends seamlessly throughout the movie. Yet, the moody, saturated black cinematography and realistic gothic setting show no reprieve from the harsh reality of brutally cold Northern England at the time of the industrial revolution.

The visual cues to Wuthering Heights are easily understood, even for those unfamiliar with the novel. What is not clear is how much of the movie is biographical fact and how much is imagined fiction.

Emily was not quite what I expected, and I realised how little I knew about Emily Brontë and her sisters. For a directorial debut, O’Connor’s Emily demonstrates a nuanced understanding of the acting craft and visual storytelling. Emily is an inspiring and engaging portrait of Emily Brontë that has established O’Connor as a talented filmmaker.

Emily Brontë’s tragic story, novel aspirations and the stark reality of life in the Yorkshire moors will linger long after the end of Emily.