Review: Emma Mackey Strongly Anchors the Melancholic Romance of “Emily”

Successfully avoiding traditional biopic pratfalls, Frances O’Connor’s Emily puts the personal anguish and abnormal life of Emily Brontë front-and-center. With a strongly stoic performance from Emma Mackey in the title role, the film paints a realistic picture of early life of the literary great.

Mackey stars as Emily Brontë, the future author, still living at home with her father Patrick (Adrian Dunbar), sister Anne (Amelia Gething), Aunt Branwell (Gemma Jones), and her wayward brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead). The arrival of another sister Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) brings the whole family back together.

The arrival of the young and handsome curate William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) stirs Emily. Following a stint at school, Emily and Branwell get into mischief which causes Patrick to steer Emily towards Weightman for further education. As their lessons continue, the pair find themselves attracted to each other, but both sides are torn at what is to become of them going forward.

This adaptation is by no means a happy view of the unseen life of a literary legend before she became legendary. Neither is it the type of biography where the author is in the throws of success following the book’s release. Emily Brontë is a complete unknown who does not write for anyone but herself or Weightman. Viewers anticipating the professional achievement and happy ending need not to look here.

Despite not being outwardly dark or heavy, the film maintains a haunting tone. Despite Brontë’s success with Wuthering Heights, the filmmakers have no interest in showing her happy and successful. Brontë as a character is depressed and repressed. As much as the audience would like to cheer her on to independence and freedom, the reality of the times are not as kind to women. Brontë is beholden to her family and her obligations.

Mackey is brilliant in the role because she doesn’t do too much. She knows exactly what kind of character she is meant to play and doesn’t overdramatize Emily’s struggles. Again, like many women of the time, she suffers in silence. That silence is tearing her apart, and Mackey conveys that tear beautifully and hauntingly. Jackson-Cohen is a perfect foil for Mackey, in that he is similarly torn apart. His struggles lie between his duty as a curate and his love for Emily. Jackson-Cohen balances the line between grating and sincere well.

Whitehead gets a surprising supporting performance out of the ne’re-do-well Branwell. He might be the black sheep in the early 19th century, but he is mostly a loveable scamp. The chemistry between Whitehead and Mackey fills the gaps where Brontë and Weightman are apart. Adrian Dunbar was also well cast as the Brontë father who never really grasps who any of his children really were.

In her debut, O’Connor directs with a steady confidence. She knows exactly what she wants and gives the story the necessary gravity and patience to breathe. Narratively, not a whole lot of action happens. But, emotionally, the film is thick with intrigue. O’Connor recognizes this and allows the actors to do the heavy lifting.

Those expecting an insightful biopic into the life of Emily Brontë will be disappointed in Emily. But, if you temper your expectations, you will see what the real life of a literary giant was like before she was ever literary.

Emily opens in select theaters on February 17th
Score: 3.5/5.0

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