There’s a practice known as bibliomancy, where readers will open the Bible to a random page in the hopes that the passage they encounter will provide a needed answer to a dilemma. In Mike Leigh’s “Career Girls,” the collegiate heroines practice their own version, called “Miss Brontë, Miss Brontë,” wherein they ask a question and then open “Wuthering Heights” in search of counsel.
How the powerful and provocative “Wuthering Heights” came to be the single novel produced by a relatively sheltered woman who died at the age of 30 is the subject of “Emily,” a powerful debut feature from actor and filmmaker Frances O’Connor. Craftily combining fact, fiction and conjecture, O’Connor captures the inner life of Emily Brontë, a writer presented here as carrying within her the same wind and storms that she immortalized on paper.
The writer-director is aided immeasurably by lead actor Emma Mackey (“Death on the Nile”), whose wide eyes and expressive features convey a torment and vivacity being held in constant check by a repressive society. Mackey never looks at the camera in a conspiratorial, “Fleabag” kind of way, but she allows the camera to plumb the many emotions she silently conveys.
The film opens on the author’s deathbed, where her sister Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling, “The Musketeers”) asks Emily how she could have written such a dark novel about such contemptuous characters. “Emily” seeks to answer that question; we learn right away that while Charlotte and Anne (Amelia Gething, “The Spanish Princess”) are cherished by their father Patrick (Adrian Dunbar) for their steady work ethics and sweet temperament, Emily is a constant disappointment to him; she is often lost in her own storytelling world, so much an outsider in polite society that people in the village refer to her as “the strange one.”
Emily is nonetheless close to her ne’er-do-well brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead) — who introduces her first to alcohol and later to opium – and she later has a love-hate relationship with the new curate, William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, “The Invisible Man”) who goes from being her French tutor to her lover, although the sinful nature of their trysts, not to mention his fear of Emily’s intensity, eventually causes him to pull back on his affections.
O’Connor is hardly bound by history (Weightman was close to Anne but there’s little to no evidence that he and Emily were intimate), yet with “Emily” she’s clearly more interested in finding the emotional truth of Emily Brontë’s life than in merely reciting the facts. O’Connor’s Emily suffers passion and betrayal, finding the same solace in her stormy surroundings that her characters do. Even in moments that parallel the action of the novel — such as when Emily and Branwell spy on their neighbors, the Lintons, who release the hounds upon them – this never succumbs to the deadly trap of too many biopic scripts, reducing an author to a mere stenographer, jotting down the bon mots and real-life incidents around them.
While it’s Mackey’s show all the way, Jackson-Cohen matches her passion, even as he often hides it within his clerical role, while Whitehead’s Branwell unlocks her fervor for living. (A scene in which Branwell induces Emily to shout out his personal motto, “Freedom of thought,” on the moors could have been cringe-worthy, but O’Connor makes it work.)
Cinematographer Nanu Segal (“An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn”) perfectly captures the fog and the winds and cliffs and the heather as though this were another screen adaptation of “Wuthering Heights,” while the score by Abel Korzeniowski (“W.E.”) accurately, with just a few instruments, captures the feeling of an anxiety attack in musical form.
It might be stretching the point to suggest that, if “Emily” were O’Connor’s only directorial effort, it would be as well-remembered as her subject’s one novel. But with any luck, this film will simply mark the opening salvo in an illustrious career behind the camera.
“Emily” opens in LA and NYC Feb. 17 and nationwide Feb. 24 via Bleecker Street.