TIFF ’22: Frances O’Connor’s Directorial Debut ‘Emily’ Captures The Early Life Of Literary Genius

Warner Bros.

Emily is the perfect film for sad girl autumn. Frances O’Connor steps into the director role for her first feature imagining the life of the literary icon behind Wuthering Heights before she became the author we all know.

The historical fiction stars Sex Education and the highly anticipated Barbie’s Emma Mackey as Emily Brontë, who commands complete attention in the titular role. A scene comes to mind where a seance is performed, and while Mackey’s face is covered with a mask, she can turn a jovial, drunken moment into a quickly sobering one with only the slightest change in her voice.

Growing up in the 19th century, Emily’s imagination was always running wild. The stories gathering in her head would keep her company at times when her siblings couldn’t. There’s no way to talk about Emily without talking about the eldest Brontë sister, Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling), and this film makes that clear. While the film focuses on Emily, O’Connor introduces Charlotte as a buttoned-up character who doesn’t resemble the person who could have written Jane Eyre, but as the story unravels gradually finds her voice.

As much as it is an aching love story about Emily’s love for her father’s assistant William Weightman played by Oliver Cohen-Jackson (their relationship is not entirely accurate but is still fun to watch), the film delves into the strong bond between siblings and complex relationships between fathers and daughters. Fionn Whitehead delivered an outstanding performance as Branwell Brontë. He brought life to this character and gave the film a perfect touch of comedy, especially when he shared the screen with Mackey. Frances O’Connor’s version of Branwell is wayward and sarcastic, making him the ideal person to bring out a side of the recluse Emily not seen by many. Since Charlotte and Whiteman constantly occupy their father’s time and attention, Emily and Branwell are often out in vast fields yelling at the top of their lungs or spying on neighbours at night. The extrovert/introvert sibling dynamic works well for the two of them because he encourages her creativity, unlike anyone else.

The actor turned filmmaker, Frances O’Connor, had a clear vision of what she wanted to do with this historical piece, and it’s made apparent. The scenic backdrop is the Yorkshire villages where the Brontë family lived (not their actual house because that is an active museum). Still, O’Connor and the director of photography Nanu Segal use the surroundings to capture the spirit of the age in which the family lived. The use of the handheld camera adds to the movement following Emily as she tramps through the countryside, and while this tends towards erratic at times, it doesn’t feel forced, 

Emily Brontë’s life was relatively quiet, being the introvert she was, but Frances O’Connor takes her story and makes it worthy of the big screen in a way that honours the literary genius. 

Emily had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and will be released in 2023.

by Kadija Osman

Kadija Osman is based in Toronto, Ontario and is currently completing her undergrad in journalism at Ryerson University. She enjoys writing about film and TV. When she isn’t watching Timothée Chalamet’s filmography, she is probably reading romance and thriller novels or ranting about the disappointing cancellation of E!’s The Royals. Her favourite films include Kingsman: The Secret Service, Lady Bird and Ready or Not. You can find her on Twitter: @kadijaosman_ and Letterboxd

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