‘Emily’: A Brontë-esque portrait of the author of ‘Wuthering Heights’


(3 stars)

The Australian actress Frances O’Connor makes a striking directorial debut with “Emily,” a provocative revisionist biography of the author Emily Brontë.

Played by Emma Mackey (“Sex Education”) with a beguiling combination of self-conscious reserve and feral intensity, O’Connor’s enigmatic heroine isn’t the reclusive, neurasthenic creature concocted by popular imagination (with the help of her older sister Charlotte, who took charge of the narrative when Emily died in 1848 at age 30). Here, O’Connor takes what little we reliably know about Emily’s life as the daughter of a Yorkshire clergyman and self-effacing sister to three artistically expressive siblings, and fleshes it out with generous helpings of speculation and outright fiction, using Brontë’s one and only novel, “Wuthering Heights,” as a lens on her own inner wildness and longing.

The conceit has an inevitable seductive appeal, as Emily — called “the strange one” by her neighbors — grows from a socially awkward misfit into a first-rate poet and writer, her talents largely hidden until they come under the appreciative gaze of her father’s curate, William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Fans of “Wuthering Heights” — not to mention “Jane Eyre,” Charlotte’s equally famous entry in the family’s literary sensation sweepstakes — will instantly recognize Weightman as a leading man lifted directly from the Brontë mold: initially forbidding, judgmental and withholding, only to succumb to helpless adoration once the superior character of his beloved and the windswept romance of the Yorkshire moors have their desired effect.

O’Connor leans heavily into that fusing of the inner and natural worlds: There’s lots of twirling about in “Emily,” often amid drenching rainstorms while cavorting on those aforementioned dales. But for the sometimes hysterically pitched emotion of the movie — especially when the soaring choral musical score kicks in — “Emily” is at its best when it quiets down, allowing viewers to see Emily’s world as she might have perceived it. The primal wound she and the rest of the Brontës are working out, the loss of a wife and mother, is never far from her consciousness, especially when Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) pursues an education and ultimately a teaching career. Although Emily starts down the same path, her crippling anxiety sends her home, where her future clearly lies in being a helpmate to her fire-and-brimstone father, Patrick (Adrian Dunbar).

The arrival of Weightman on the scene promises to relieve Emily of such drudgery; so do the high jinks of her brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead), a drinker and opium dabbler whom O’Connor depicts as bringing his little sister along on his not-quite-reputable escapades.

Did it happen that way? The factual particulars are less interesting to O’Connor than the mystical gifts of her protagonist, whose native sensitivity tips into outright possession in one of “Emily’s” most powerfully effective scenes, when Emily conjures her late mother during an impromptu séance. What begins as after-dinner entertainment takes on the Gothically supernatural contours of “Wuthering Heights” itself, just as Emily’s choice to tattoo the words “Freedom in thought” on her inner arm presages the ungovernable intelligence of Cathy, her creation and, by O’Connor’s lights, her literary doppelganger.

Dreamy and haunted, a product of hyper-dramatic atmosphere as much as the social and family dynamics of her time, the Emily of O’Connor’s telling emerges as a figure with spirit, magnetism and mystery. “Emily” is less a portrait of an artist as a young woman than the finding and freeing of a rebel heart. The movie may or may not be entirely true to Brontë, but it is surpassingly, and often deliciously, Brontë-esque.

R. At area theaters. Contains some sexuality, nudity and drug use. 130 minutes.

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