Mackey Soars In Dreamy, Gothic-Inspired Twist On Typical Biopic

Mar 5, 2023

Going into Emily, the feature debut of director Frances O’Connor, it is important to understand that the film isn’t a biopic. The title character may be Emily Brontë, the author behind literary classic Wuthering Heights, but it is clear that O’Connor, who also wrote the screenplay, opted to add a fictional slant in bringing this figure to life. While some might bristle at the unconventional approach, those willing to go along for the ride will come away enchanted with the story Emily tells. In many ways, it resonates with the present day without veering into anachronisms, and it paints a fascinating portrait of a woman who existed well before today’s imaginations took shape. Led by a stunning Emma Mackey, Emily is a striking depiction of a woman embracing her individuality while crafting an iconic piece of literature.

Emily starts at the end, as its eponymous heroine (Mackey) struggles to combat a deathly illness. As they wait for the doctor, Emily’s sister, Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling), inches close enough to ask a question that seems to have haunted her for some time: What prompted Emily to write her controversial novel, Wuthering Heights? The film then unspools a fictional account of how Emily came to bring that perennial story to life, which, at the time of its publication, was polarizing because of its rejection of typical values. An outcast both within her family and her community at large, Emily seems to only draw comfort from her stories and her equally wayward brother, Branwell (Fionn Whitehead). However, the arrival of a new local curate, William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), sparks a new sense of discovery within Emily, one that helps her make her mark on literary history.

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Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Emma Mackey in Emily

O’Connor crafts Emily as almost a dreamy ghost story. From Abel Korzeniowski’s score, that is at turns lively and haunting, to gorgeous landscape shots of the Yorkshire moors, Emily has the makings of a Gothic novel come to life. O’Connor draws from widely speculated parts of Brontë’s life to tell her enthralling tale, and this freedom works to great effect. The film may not be telling a wholly accurate life story, but instead one that fits perfectly with how Emily Brontë and her famous work is often viewed in modern culture. There are aspects to Emily’s story that resonate strongly today, namely her outsider status within a society that values more conservative thinking. Emily’s refusal — or perhaps inability — to fit into pre-arranged boxes will stick with any viewer who has felt they cannot fall in line with a specific kind of lifestyle. Additionally, O’Connor weaves in instances where Emily suffers from things people today can put a name to — a panic attack, for example — but was perhaps looked down upon back in the 1800s. This only serves to further connect Emily’s story with the present.

O’Connor is aided by impressive work from key craftspeople, including director of photography Nanu Segal and costume designer Michael O’Connor, who offer standout contributions. Segal grants Mackey ample time to shine by letting the camera linger on her face, sometimes even centering it directly on her to catch every flicker and shift; this pulls the audience even further into Emily’s orbit. At the same time, those aforementioned landscape shots fully establish the breadth of Emily’s world. Michael O’Connor, meanwhile, seems to make the conscious decision of dressing Emily in darker dresses than the other women around her, subtly setting her apart. It’s only when Emily makes some steps towards conforming to those desired ideals that she ventures into lighter frocks. It also helps that the costumes themselves are gorgeous.

Emma Mackey in Emily

Emily isn’t without some stumbles, though. There are some key developments in the script that come a bit too fast to truly feel their impact, such as a plot point involving Branwell far enough into the film to be considered a spoiler. The speed of Emily’s resolution can dull its overall impression. Luckily, though, the film has a major advantage in Mackey. The Sex Education star throws herself into the character of Emily wholeheartedly, giving a fully committed performance that asks Mackey to be ecstatic, curious, vulnerable, and vengeful at various points. Mackey brings her Emily to life so vividly, one wishes they had the opportunity to genuinely know her. As her illicit suitor, Jackson-Cohen nails the part of a brooding romantic interest. His chemistry with Mackey lights up the screen. Whitehead also deserves praise for his performance as Emily’s libertine brother; flitting between carefree antics and underlying hurt, Whitehead gives Branwell compelling depth.

Emily is a period piece that wears its modern sensibilities on its sleeve, and it thankfully pulls off that high-wire act rather well. Pacing issues aside, it is a well-crafted character study of a person who really lived, though perhaps not quite in the way the movie suggests. Historical purists might not approve of the liberties O’Connor has taken with Emily, but those more interested in a Gothic-styled film that is both a romance and a coming-of-age tale will be entranced by what this has to offer.

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Emily releases in theaters Friday, February 17. It is 130 minutes long and rated R for some sexuality/nudity and drug use.

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