Emily Brontë Simps For A Man

‘Emily’, a dumb-smart movie about how only love denied can create great art

While the normies were out enjoying the trashy spectacle of Cocaine Bear this weekend, the “smart” cinemagoers, all 16 of them, went to see ‘Emily,’ a ridiculously contrived story about how and why Emily Brontë created Wuthering Heights. Since I am both smart and trashy, I saw both movies. The comparison isn’t really useful, but a rampaging bear certainly would have livened up the proceedings in ‘Emily.’

EMILY ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Frances O’Connor
Written by: Frances O’Connor
Starring: Emma Mackey, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Fionn Whitehead, Alexandra Dowling
Running time: 130 min

In this film, which could easily have aired on PBS in its golden age except for one thoroughly gratuitous boob shot, Emily Brontë is a sullen goth teen about to enter adulthood. But she has moods and a motivational tattoo on her arm, and is prone to behaving badly with her drug-addicted ne’er-do-well brother Branwell while her attractive but repressed sisters Anne and Charlotte do their good-girl routines. Emily and Branwell gandy about the moors, getting into mischief and weirdly flirting with each other. Eventually, Emily falls into forbidden fuckery with a sexy local curate, kind of the Victorian version of the “hot priest” from Fleabag. Tragedies occur, and then Emily becomes a novelist. Also, then Charlotte becomes a novelist. That’s it. That’s the tweet.

‘Emily’ takes the conventions of the gothic narrative and mostly de-goths them and then applies them to the lives of the Brontë sisters themselves. There are some problems with these assumptions. Sure, Emily and Charlotte took some elements of their childhood setting and applied them to Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. That’s well-documented. But their own lives did not inspire the stories themselves. Both those novels, among the finest ever written in English, borrowed from literary conventions of the time, enhanced them, and possibly even perfected them. They were typical stories of a certain genre, but just happened to be the best representations of that genre. The novels didn’t happen because of Emily’s tragic love or because Charlotte was repressed until it was too late. They happened because the Brontë sisters were geniuses who created imaginary worlds from their limited, repressed surroundings.

The movie hints at their brilliance by showing the sisters feeling literary inspiration by staring out a window, which I guess is the Victorian equivalent of an “aha” moment in the shower. But there’s even a problem with that trope. In this version, Charlotte doesn’t have her inspiration until after Emily. In fact, spoiler alert, she doesn’t realize her genius until after Emily dies. However, in the real world, Charlotte published Jane Eyre first. There’s plenty of evidence that the sisters were writing the novels at the same time, even collaboratively. So, I have to wonder, what’s the point of ‘Emily’? It takes great literary works and places them in surface of a standard romance-novel weeper with a pretentious NPR gloss.

The movie has some elements to recommend. Mostly, you can watch it because of a magnetic lead performance from Emma Mackey, in a star-making role. Mackey stood out as a troubled goth-teen genius, kind of a modern version of her Emily character, in the Australian show Sex Education. And she dominated the proceedings in Kenneth Branagh’s dreadful Death on the Nile remake, running hot circles around established movie stars. In ‘Emily,’ she holds the screen with a smoldering weirdness and shows incredible range, making a ridiculously-written character believable and sympathetic.

The rest of the cast is also good, or at least good enough, doing the best they can with the odd material. And there are some set-pieces that work quite well, like when Emily and her curate tutor flirt angrily in French, or, especially, a scene that depicts a kind of game-séance, where Emily creepily channels the Brontë sibling’s dead mother, reducing the entire parlor into a kind of wind-swept panic. That scene, and the life-altering grief it implies, hit hard, and seems like a better inspiration for Wuthering Heights than the fact that Emily Brontë was sad about a man.


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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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