‘Emily’: Between Fact And Fiction

Bleecker Street

The announcement of an Emily Brontë biopic was always going to generate excitement among the niche cross-section of film buffs and Brontë enthusiasts. The project, spearheaded by director and screenwriter Frances O’Connor (who herself appeared in the 1999 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park), gave seriously good vibes. Sex Education’s Emma Mackey was cast in the title role, with Adrian Dunbar, Fionn Whitehead and Oliver Jackson-Cohen also on board. 

Then came the rumours that this biopic would not be a straightforward A-Z, but rather it would be adopting a revisionist approach. The Guardian interviewed Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who described Emily as “hugely relatable.” Significant changes to Emily Brontë’s biography had been made, not least the invention of a love affair with curate William Weightman (played by Jackson-Cohen).

The nuts and bolts of the Brontë story are brief and sobering. The siblings (Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell) were outlived by their father, Reverend Patrick Brontë, who worked at Haworth Parsonage in Yorkshire. The village was surrounded by moorland, which became the Brontës’ playground and their inspiration in later years. While Branwell struggled to find a footing in the outside world, the girls were primarily based at home. They developed a writing’ collective’, encouraging each other to produce poetry and fiction. Emily is considered the most accomplished of the sisters, with the novel Wuthering Heights firmly embedded in literary and popular culture. 

Bleecker Street

Emily has received some positive reviews, although the Standard’s Charlotte O’Sullivan called the film “disappointing.” The reshaping of the Brontë story, seemingly for a younger audience, moves away from fact and into fantasy. O’Connor’s desire to see buttoned-up characters let loose and get it on not only overlooks essential details in the Brontë biography but raises broader questions about responsibility in the film-making process: what fills the void when these details are left out?

O’Connor’s screenplay muddles together truth and myth to create a Brontë alternate reality. Weightman was real enough: he arrived at Haworth in 1839 as an assistant to Patrick and was a genial, light-hearted presence at the Parsonage. The teasing handwritten notes he passed to the Brontë sisters gave them a brotherly figure when Branwell was already beginning to sink under his addictions to laudanum and alcohol. The curate was so well respected in Haworth that when he died during a cholera outbreak, the entire village turned out for his funeral. 

The film leans into this affair – the idea is that the physical passion gives Brontë the err….stimulus she requires to write the red-blooded Wuthering Heights. Brontë’s loyalties divide Weightman and Branwell, and an overworked plot point involving an undelivered letter ends in disaster for the lovers. Weightman dies, and Emily publishes her work.

You can certainly make a case for the revisionist biopic; there’s always more to be said and uncovered, and Emily isn’t the first literary biopic to bend the truth. Julian Jarrold’s 2007 film Becoming Jane expands on an actual relationship Jane Austen had with a young lawyer, Tom Lefroy. But where Emily diverges is not in the embellishment of Brontë’s life but the reinvention of it. O’Connor attempts a feminist reading of Brontë, giving her licence to take drugs with Branwell and afternoon delight with Weightman, but by making Emily Brontë more ‘cinema friendly,’ there are implications. Not least that female lives are not, by themselves, worthy of interest. They need to be sexed up. 

With Emily, there was a chance to examine her as a writer and a woman. At first glance, her life does seem largely uneventful. But some clues provide some psychological insight. There are theories that she may have been anorexic (the measurements for her coffin were tiny). Reclusive and a habitual avoider of social interaction, her near-breakdown when she was sent abroad to a teaching job with Charlotte, was inevitable. 

There is no evidence that Emily Brontë had any significant relationships outside her immediate family, but what we do know about her as a person has also been substantially altered for the film. Emily was prickly, complex and, at times, violent. The edges of her personality in Emily have been smoothed away to reveal a heteronormative girl with anxiety and substance abuse issues. Not only are relationships invented, but the attachments Emily did have are presented out of context. The tension between Charlotte and Emily – played out over her deathbed, no less –  was not professional jealousy but Emily’s concern about what would happen as their novels went public. The Brontë literature did create waves in Victorian society, making the ‘publication party’ at the end of the film as likely as a spaceship landing on the Parsonage lawn. 

Bleecker Street

The film also misses chances to discuss the publication process for women in the 19th century. The film ends with a close-up of Emily’s novel. We read the spine: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. The sisters had to use male pseudonyms (Currer, Acton and Ellis Bell, respectively) to get into print. While female authors were published, the Brontë sisters had to disguise their identity as they wrote novels about deeply controversial and ‘unfeminine’ subjects. O’Connor only briefly shows the sisters sitting in the Parsonage after dark, writing and consulting each other on their projects. O’Connor’s choice to minimize the Brontës’ vigorous writing process – and Charlotte’s perseverance in getting Wuthering Heights to publication – not only undermines their intellectualism, but she also makes little effort to look beyond that well-worn trope of ‘isolated genius.’ From childhood, the Brontës were encouraged by their father to read and have opinions on current affairs and politics.

While no biopic should be set in stone, the choices made when talking about a female artist, as opposed to a male one, are significant. Regardless of what point in history is being discussed, the rules of engagement will always be different. What parts of a subject’s life to leave out and what to embellish become politically charged when that subject is from a marginalized group. This film is also intended for a general audience – you would not expect cinema-goers to have read their Juliet Barker or Winifred Gerin beforehand, especially as the rough outline of the film: a dense, claustrophobic hothouse of feverish poetry and addiction, feels right. But the changes aren’t just to make a better film; they are trying to make a ‘better’ Brontë. It is this misrepresentation that makes Emily problematic. 

When making a fictionalized portrait of a real person, there is always a balance to be struck. Emily peeling potatoes, or walking her dog, would not make for great cinema. But by pulling further and further away from the reality of her life, Emily makes a statement on how women’s lives are regarded. Malleable and ready for reworking. Under the cinematic gaze, Brontë becomes homogenized. At a time when we should be leaning into the tougher parts of biography, Emily simplifies and sidelines what doesn’t quite fit. The attempt to modernize Emily Brontë leaves us with an incomplete picture and one more rooted in convention, which is at odds with Brontë’s writing (and behaviour). In creating such a divide between Emily and Emily, O’Connor’s biopic does service to neither.

by Helen Tope

Helen has been writing film and arts reviews for ten years. She graduated in 1998 with a degree in English Literature, and her areas of interest include period drama and film noir.

Related Posts:

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

Looking Back At Jane Austen In Film

Portraying Women Writers In Film Is A Terrifyingly Beautiful Art Form 

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