The debut of writer-director Frances O’Connor has finally made its way to the states, and I couldn’t be happier. Released at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, hitting UK theaters last October, this biopic of Emily Brontë is as beautiful as it is powerful. Emma Mackey gives a phenomenal performance with tons of range and commitment; but despite all there is to love about this movie, I have a huge problem with the way it was written. Readers of this blog will already know I take plenty of issues with biopics and despite all its technical finesse, I’m sad to say this film is no different. While I enjoyed the watch, I think there are a few key blind spots that ultimately flatten Emily Brontë to fit the film’s narrative rather than show the full complexity and nuance of her life.
Despite her work seeming like an important element in this movie, even in the trailer, we see so little of her process. Emily’s never shown agonizing over pages during editing, despite that almost certainly being the case. Instead, a man she loves dies, and she writes one of the greatest novels of her era in a single sitting. Centering her entire creative process around an ill-fated romance is simplistic at best, reductive at worst, and shows how the film’s only interested in the politics it invokes at a surface level. Near the end, when she finally publishes Wuthering Heights, O’Connor takes a huge liberty and shows Brontë publishing under her own name, which is completely inaccurate. Because of gender roles at the time, something the script itself makes hollow gestures toward, the Brontë sisters had to publish under male pen-names, even needing to pay the publisher to print their books. Glossing over such an important fact hints at a deeper problem with the script: it's totally disinterested in politics.
Gender roles appear to be thematically crucial to this movie, yet we never thoroughly explore them. This oversight is a real shame since Brontë’s work proves itself to be interested in questions of gender, class and even race. I’m not saying the movie has to dive deep into the politics of 1800s England, but I am saying the film has a responsibility to properly situate its subject in her time and place—especially if it’s being marketed as a biopic. Surely Brontë had opinions on topics that were so relevant to her daily life and her writing. We might not agree with her views, but they should’ve been shown. Erasing them makes her world seem more insulated than it likely was, creating an almost vacuous context where the focus is solely on her love life.
Despite adopting her brother’s credo, ‘freedom in thought,’ Emily falls for a rigid preacher who represents the opposite of freedom in thought. Their relationship could have been used to complicate her personhood, showing that life is sticky and at times contradictory, but we instead get a predictable star-crossed lovers arc. It’s a biopic that’s mainly focused around romance, flattening a complex artist in a way that almost approaches a kind of sexism.
This was all made even more maddening by the fact that, despite its writing, it’s a fantastic movie. Emma Mackey’s performance is electric, at times getting me so wrapped up in certain scenes I forgot about my distaste for the script. Her portrayal of Emily is dynamic, sometimes moving from extremely shy to fiery and rebellious in a single scene. In addition to this transcendent acting, the cinematography is phenomenal; it’s a movie filled with beautiful lighting and some shots that will make your jaw drop. Music was used very smartly throughout, providing a tonal contrast that shows the horror at the heart of a woman’s daily life. It’s a shame Emily wasn’t shown as a real person. Instead, she feels like another mascot for the identifiers in the trailer: rebel, misfit, genius. It goes out of its way to modernize her to better fit this narrative, but ultimately loses track of the fact that, for a woman like her, in her own time, she was radical enough. Despite these shortcomings, you should definitely watch Emily in theaters now!