In terms of how much it has affected my actual movie-watching, there aren’t many more impactful lines in cinema than Walk Hard’s ‘you’re gonna have to give him a moment, son. Dewey Cox has to think about his entire life before he plays.’ It’s such an obvious yet still cutting takedown of the biopic that every opening scene in this genre gets, at least somewhat, judged by it. The latest casualty of this rule is Frances O’Connor’s Emily, a Bronte biopic that, for all its pre-release chatter of ‘breaking the rules’, opens with a dying Emily (Emma Mackey) recalling her entire, all-too-short life before explaining how she wrote Wuthering Heights. It’s, sadly, a fitting beginning for a dull and unimaginative film that searches for revolution but comes utterly undone in its tiring failure to find it.

Writing and directing, O’Connor fictionalises the chunk of Emily’s life in which she found the inspiration for Wuthering Heights, and it’s in these historical liberties that Emily finds its fundamental flaws. Obviously, authenticity and truth always come second to a good story, but the inventions of O’Connor seem to actively undermine her character. In attempting to show Emily as a unique genius even within her still-celebrated literary family, her sisters mostly come off as simpering nothings, afforded very little to do, but O’Connor doesn’t attempt to then give Emily that much actual creative agency.

Instead, her life and work revolves around the men in her life, first her fun-but-damaged brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead), whose morphine-fuelled creative energies awaken Emily’s literary spark, and then the painfully obvious Heathcliffe stand-in, sexy but mean priest William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Weightman is brought in by Emily’s irritable father to teach her French, but they’re soon having a steamy, doomed affair. There are some nice moments of chemistry between Mackey and Jackson-Cohen, but it’s not consistent and the message – which seems to be that Emily couldn’t imagine a great story herself and so needed torrid sex with a hunk to dream it up – is laughably counter to the attempted feminist credentials.

Mackey, Jackson-Cohen, and Whitehead all bring committed performances, but their characters still feel like they’re being kept at a remove thanks to middling dialogue and O’Connor’s overbearing stylistic choices. At every point, Emily is trying to avoid ‘actor’s directorial debut’ cliches, and though the ambition is admirable, the strain is visible. A droning score fades into moments of utter silence, while quick, successive cuts during close-ups make moments into jagged memories, all trying to put us inside Emily’s troubled mind, but the effect is more distracting than immersive.

When things slow down, there are some gorgeous dusk-light shots of the Yorkshire moors and O’Connor does muster up one genuinely great scene as a parlour game becomes the sight of a maybe-real séance when Emily seems to be haunted by the ghost of her late mother. It’s properly spooky and weird in the way that the rest of the film is aspiring for but not attaining, and serves as a fantastic showcase for Mackey, giving a powerful performance even from behind a death mask. Unfortunately, the rest of Emily is just too thematically and formally confused to make the impact it seeks.


Written and Directed by Frances O’Connor

Starring; Emma Mackey, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Fionn Whitehead

Runtime: 130 mins

Rating: 15