Emily was a film I had been anticipating for what felt like eons, debuting all the way back at 2022’s Toronto International Film Festival. A simple period piece romance was expected, and Emily is absolutely not that kind of movie. Writer/director Frances O’Connor depicts a bleak and painfully slow biographical drama with little stylistic flair or dramatic tension. Relying far too heavily on a lead performance from Sex Education stand-out Emma Mackey as author Emily Bronte, not a single other character is fleshed out enough to leave a lasting impression other than Bronte’s brother, Branwell (played by Fionn Whitehead). Bronte’s life is instead depicted as a hollow romance with aimless aspirations and countless daydreams.
Emily, privy to lightheaded fainting spells, is overjoyed that her young sister, Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling), and father (Adrian Dunbar) have returned home, but her joy is short-lived. Charlotte constantly demeans Emily at every turn, insisting that those around town refer to her as “the strange one.” Her father never seems to appreciate much of anything Emily does or is capable of doing, and Emily’s relationship with Branwell mostly consists of them doing scandalous things like spying on people. A well-read snooty curate to Emily’s father, William (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), becomes the object of Emily’s deepest desires, and key to several more problems, because what other complications can we possibly give a young woman in this time period if not boy issues?
Their tumultuous relationship never comes across as scandalous as it is portrayed, nor do either of the actors share the same chemistry as, for instance, the recent adaptation of Lady Chatterly’s Lover, nor the stoic eroticism. Mackey vibes more with Whitehead as brother-and-sister, to the point that when the two are separated, I yearned for them to share scenes together once more. Whether they are screaming together for “FREEDOM AND THOUGHT” at the top of their lungs, or rolling around on the hills, Emily and Branwell are maybe the one facet of Emily that actually, genuinely worked for me.
In real life, the author died from tuberculosis at age thirty, but Emily fails to establish the time period, or any sense of the real character whatsoever. Did she actually have an affair with William? Was Emily’s sister Charlotte truly this cold? What does any of this have to do with Wuthering Heights? Perhaps a more succinct familiarity with Emily Bronte could have prepared me for what was in store—mostly, I just wanted to understand why I was robbed of the advertised romance at the film’s core. Ultimately, for this viewer anyway, Emily is a pretentious snooze that cannot seem to decide what it wants to say about an iconic figure for literature.
Turn the page on a new story when Emily comes to limited release theaters on Friday, February 17th.