For the 1850 edition of her sister’s novel Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Brontë included a biographical notice. She wanted to “wipe the dust off” her sisters’ gravestones, to clarify authorship and to correct the misconceptions that had trailed her literary family. But in turn, she began the mythologising process of her strange sister. In the notice, she writes of watching Emily succumb swiftly to tuberculosis at 30 years old, with increasing lucidity and without self-pity: “I had seen nothing like it; but indeed, I had never seen her parallel in anything. Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone.”
The singular nature of Emily Brontë – and her wild, isolated ingenuity – has proved to be a persistent cultural obsession. Its latest manifestation is the film Emily, the directorial debut of Australian–English actor Frances O’Connor (most famous for her role in the 1999 revisionist adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park). Emily has been billed as an unconventional fictional biography, fusing Emily Brontë and her sole novel with a modern sensibility. But there is nothing new or unconventional here: O’Connor is working within a long tradition where writers and filmmakers play with Brontë’s biography in order to create cohesion between her life and the unruly, intense book she wrote.
By all accounts, Brontë was gifted, difficult, dutiful and obstinate, a woman who preferred her private dream world to reality. She was the daughter of a priest and motherless; she saw two of her sisters die from the illness that would also eventually kill her. There was deprivation and solemn duty, but also education, nature and fantasy. She and her two remaining sisters (Anne and Charlotte) at first invented their own speculative kingdoms and wrote poetry, until they moved collectively towards the novel.
Brontë died a year after publishing Wuthering Heights. Full of violent love, ghosts and graves, it is a staple of alienated girlhood and remains a testament to how stories can be spun from repression and boredom. I’ve always thought Wuthering Heights to be guided by the same sadistic but instinctual forces of girls alone in play – presiding over their invented universes, subjecting their dolls to mutilation and tyranny. I don’t make this comparison pejoratively – rather, to reinforce the text’s restless and daring visions.
In O’Connor’s version of the author’s life, Emily (Emma Mackey) is confined to the clichés of an awkward, misfit teenager. She is the “strange” and “odd” one of the village. She spars with her sister Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) and is neglected by her father. She worships her brother, Branwell (Fionn Whitehead), an aspiring artist and tortured alcoholic, who introduces her to the virtues of the Romantics and the languid joys of opium. Bits of Wuthering Heights bleed into the narrative: Emily and Branwell habitually spy on their wealthy neighbours, an echo of Catherine and Heathcliff peering into the Lintons’ windows.
Emily attempts to free itself from the constraints and pomp of the English historical drama, I assume to better capture the affections of younger audiences. Corsets come undone and gowns are muddied in the moors, but this film is bereft of any visual style of its own. Even a scene of mystical evocation – a game of charades that descends into Emily’s body being a conduit for her dead mother – feels cribbed from the most forgettable of horror films.
The film’s narrative hinges on the fictionalised romance between Brontë and her father’s curate, the hot and boring William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). In reality, it was her younger sister, Anne, (Amelia Gething) who was believed to be in love with him. He teaches Brontë French and tries to save her soul, until his concerns dissolve into infatuation. Soon, the spinster is sexually liberated.
The eroticisation of Brontë is an odd approach, given that her work, full of calamitous entanglements and cruel possession, is particularly ambivalent towards sex. She was not agonised by romantic failures like her sisters. “Wuthering Heights is a virgin’s story,” wrote Elizabeth Hardwick in her essay on the Brontës. “We do not, in her biography, even look for a lover as we do with Emily Dickinson because it is impossible to join her with a man, with a secret, aching passion for a young curate or a schoolmaster. There is a spare, inviolate center, a harder resignation amounting finally to withdrawal.”
The film shares the problem of most adaptations of Wuthering Heights – an emphasis on melodramatic love, which usually correlates to a focus on the first half of the story and omitting the latter half, that fails to take us anywhere as perverse as the novel. This is one of the reasons why the story seems to be largely stuck in the annals of dour BBC television and staid British cinema – the one exception perhaps being Andrea Arnold’s grimy 2011 adaption.
There have been stranger attempts on screen that have better captured the feral dreaminess of the novel. Luis Buñuel – who like his fellow surrealists adored Brontë for her exemplary displays of the unconscious and l’amour fou (mad love) – swapped the Yorkshire moors for the Mexican desert in his somewhat necrophilic Abismos de pasión (1954). In Jacques Rivette’s Hurlevent (1985), Catherine and Heathcliff run amok through the rocky formations of southern France in the 1930s. On the loose biographical front, there is André Téchiné’s austere portrait of the Brontë family, Les Soeurs Brontës, which features Isabelle Adjani, Isabelle Huppert and a rare cameo by Roland Barthes. This movie is a slog, full of unrepentant gloom, but there is – thankfully – no attempt to neatly tie these sisters’ lives to their books.
While Emily weaves in a couple of the author’s poems, it repeats the sins of many films about writers: it can only imagine the act of writing in the most literal and simplistic terms. Near the end of the film, after heartbreak and grief, Brontë sits at the desk in her room and stares into the damp countryside. Almost immediately, sentences stream out. The scene commits to the fantasy of a writer as an endless wellspring of language, but thinking and writing do not so easily translate to visual pleasure or exciting cinema.
With its fabulist tedium, Emily is consumed with filling in the blanks, but a more interesting film could have been forged by sitting with absences. Emily Brontë’s life was textured by lack and limitation. Faced with the void, her imagination swelled.
Emily is showing at cinemas nationally.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 21, 2023 as "Missing Emily".
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