Few families changed the face of literature like the Brontë family. Both Charlotte and Emily Brontë crafted masterworks that broke through the literary establishment. However, the struggles they face in life are often lost behind their work. Director Frances O’Connor tells the story of the iconic author in Emily. Behind a haunted and spirited performance, Emma Mackey delivers an excellent performance that transcends the traditional biopic trappings of the genre.
After the loss of her mother, Emily (Mackey) struggles in the confinement of her life. Her father (Adrian Dunbar) wants her to learn French and marry. She constantly fights with her sister Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling). Emily even puts up with her brother, Branwell (Fionn Whitehead), believing he possesses the talent to be an extraordinary writer. As Emily begins to flex her own artistic muscles, she’s introduced to William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), forcing her to engage with her intellectual equal for the first time in years.
O’Connor builds the narrative at a reasonable pace, allowing us to watch Emily’s changing ideas and passions instead of painting her as a privileged genius. This does take time to unravel, but it ultimately works for the benefit of the story. After all, we have far too many biopics that dive into the hidden genius of their protagonists. Instead, Emily understands the moments of its titular artist’s life that led to the creation of her seminal text. She’s always smart, but it’s through tragedy and struggle that she became the legendary author.
O’Connor and Emily thrive when the focus is on Mackey. The Sex Education actress brings ferocity to the performance that showcases her character’s extreme intellect and outsider status. She plays Emily as a more modern woman because she is someone looking beyond the gender and class structures of her time. Mackey communicates a level of claustrophobia and allows the simmering anger of her limitations to burn throughout the movie. Without Mackey’s layered performance, Emily would not so impactful.
Emily also succeeds in its visual styling. The costumes, production design, and cinematography are all gorgeous. In the second half of the film, all these items turn from beautiful set dressings to fully functional aspects of the story. The ways O’Connor and DP Nanu Segal shoot the human body makes for stunning shot compositions. O’Connor also builds in one of the more lust-driven sequences in a period film in years. The building of sexual tension and harnessing it to deliver powerful emotional beats helps Emily stand out. It does not have the absurdist energy of Tony McNamera’s recent projects, but it rises above the stuffiness of lesser costume dramas.
Perhaps the weakest aspect of Emily comes from the rest of the Brontë family. There are too many moments where O’Connor paints them as villainous and uncaring to fully sell the relationship with their sister. There’s no harm in showcasing them as devious, as that is almost certainly true. Even if the Brontë family was as reticent to let Emily find her own happiness as depicted, it unbalanced this movie. O’Connor wants us to feel for Branwell and Charlotte but makes them unlikable to the point where forgiveness feels impossible. Their cruelty becomes a burden on the movie.
Emily checks off most of the boxes for what makes a period drama successful. However, with Mackey’s performances and O’Connor’s direction, there is more intricacy and passion than other entries of the genre. Emily paves the way for Mackey’s big-screen career and showcases her incredible range. While those who do not like period pieces will likely struggle to connect, Emily should thrill fans of the subgenre.