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Emily review – half-biopic does a disservice to the Brontë sisters

Emma Mackey gives a committed turn as the Wuthering Heights author, but it's not enough to save Frances O’Connor's dour film

In an interview with The Guardian, Frances O’Connor – herself no stranger to adaptations of female-written period fare, having starred in 1999’s Mansfield Park – described Emily, her not-quite biopic of Emily Brontë, as an act of “putting her in the centre of her own story.” How sad it is, then, that O’Connor appears to believe that no gloomy woman living on austere northern moorlands could possibly have conjured up a story full of passion and depth without the help of an invented heartbreak backstory to inspire her. This is the insurmountable issue that plagues the film throughout, despite an admirable amount of atmosphere crafted on a shoestring budget: it somehow manages to insult not one, but all three literary sisters.

Between this and Eiffel, Emma Mackey seems to have firmly found her niche starring in mythical period-drama origin stories. At least that film was fun. Emily is a dour film of cold Victorian suffering that seems less interested in Brontë’s talent and more concerned with fabricating reasons as to why she may have been able to write Wuthering Heights. The entire thing comes off as insulting and regressive; the film just cannot seem to conceive that she may have had an overactive imagination which, alone, was responsible for her writing one of the most praised books in the English language.

While the 135 minute film has the visual vim and thematic vigour of cholera itself, it all begins promisingly. We’re introduced to Emily’s trailing imagination as she wanders, waif-like and inscrutable, through the mossy stones and frond-laden fields of Haworth, the village where she lives with her sisters Anne (Amelia Gething) and Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) and her wayward brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead). Her sisters are graceful, with skin of luminous ivory; she is sallow, with perennial eyebags and a “rude and strange” demeanour.

But wait! There is a dashing young man on standby, ready to enliven her socially, sexually and emotionally! Oliver Jackson-Cohen, more Abercrombie & Fitch model than convincingly playing clergyman William Weightman, quickly gets a bee in Emily’s staunchly starched bonnet, only to plead religious guilt and abandon her shortly before everyone and their dog succumbs to tuberculosis and dies a very Victorian death.

Emily’s secret weapon is Mackey herself; she approaches the hackneyed scenes of tentative hand-to-hand contact, consequent bodice-ripping, then deathbed languor with great commitment. There’s also some pleasingly shaky camerawork that wobbles in the harsh Yorkshire wind, lending a curious imbalance to proceedings, and lush costume design by Michael O'Connor.

There could have been something here – something hardier, muddier, more compelling. But even the trailer itself, which plasters words like REBEL and MISFIT and GENIUS in pink typeface, betrays the faux-feminist fashionings within. Emily is ultimately not faithful enough to be interesting in a historical sense, not swooning enough to be lush and enveloping, not weird enough to be revisionist. It's hard to see the value in it existing at all.

Emily is released in UK cinemas on 14 October.

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