Australian actress Frances O’Connor makes both her directorial and writing debut with Emily, a pseudo-biopic about revered writer Emily Brontë that intentionally fudges the facts surrounding the 19th century author. Though her lone novel Wuthering Heights is widely regarded as a literary classic, details of Brontë’s personal life weren’t especially well-documented before her untimely death at the age of 30. That means making her the subject of a biographical drama calls for inferences to be drawn from what is written about Brontë and for extrapolations to be rendered under artistic license. I’m neither an English nor a history major, so I didn’t go into this movie expecting to pick it apart for accuracy but simply to get the sense of how this reclusive young woman concocted such a galvanizing piece of literature seemingly out of nowhere. What I got was a bundle of period piece clichés and a story that always seems at odds with itself.

We meet Emily Brontë (Emma Mackey) on what seems to be her deathbed, with sister and fellow writer Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) trying to get answers before it’s too late about how she conceived of Wuthering Heights. We’re taken back years in Emily’s life to her 20s, where she fosters a relationship with her other sister Anne (Amelia Gething) and gets into trouble with her brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead) while Charlotte is away at school. One day, handsome clergyman William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) joins her father’s parsonage as a curate and begins teaching French to Emily. There doesn’t seem to be much of a spark between the two at the outset but over the course of their lessons, an affection develops between Emily and William. Due to the latter’s position in the church, a relationship would be potentially deemed scandalous and must be kept a secret from friends and family.

The largest miscalculation O’Connor makes in Emily is laboring under the regressive notion that the audience will only be interested in Brontë’s life if she has an attachment to a fetching suitor. There’s more than enough at the edges of this rote romance involving Emily’s family life to justify a story solely about them rather than shoehorning in a man about whom very little is known. Although Emily’s sisters don’t get nearly enough screen time to develop their characters and define their influence on her life, Branwell factors into the storyline and his kinship with Emily serves as the film’s sole instances of insight into Emily’s character. I can’t imagine this was O’Connor’s intent but I half-wondered if she was steering us towards a love triangle between William and Branwell; after all, Emily has practically no chemistry with William, while Branwell seems to invigorate her spiritually and creatively.

Mackey and Whitehead make the most of their scenes together, tapping into a mutual mischievous streak that infuses this otherwise murky and morose tale with some much-needed personality. The film’s best scenes are in their minute moments of bonding, whether they’re spinning around the lush countryside in an opium-tinged splendor or heckling William with bleating noises during one of his sermons. Emily’s terse interactions with Charlotte and genial exchanges with Anne are breadcrumbed throughout the narrative but there’s no good reason for these notable figures to be as sidelined as they are. Jackson-Cohen is positively a bore as the staid hunk with whom Emily inexplicably falls in love; though his character here isn’t nearly as monstrous as the one he played in The Invisible Man, he’s just as imperceptible (albeit for a different reason).

While Emily is an easy enough film to take in aesthetically, O’Connor stumbles when it comes to finding its central message. Too often, she relies on montages that don’t convey much meaningful information and are pedestrian in terms of visual storytelling. Abel Korzeniowski’s musical score swells, time speeds up but not much of an impression is ultimately left from these sequences. O’Connor also traffics in some pretty dodgy banalities that tend to plague this genre; characters run around in the rain so often in this film that I started to subconsciously beg them to stay inside. Elsewhere, she attempts to incorporate other genres, as with an awkward and mean-spirited seance scene that briefly indulges the supernatural but doesn’t tie back to the plot later on. A more honest inquisition into the life of this solitary novelist would hold true cultural value but Emily too often takes the easy way out.

Score – 2/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming only to theaters is Creed III, a sports drama starring Michael B. Jordan and Jonathan Majors following the titular heavyweight as he dukes it out with a childhood friend-turned-foe who resurfaces after serving a long sentence in prison.
Also playing only in theaters is Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre, a spy action comedy starring Jason Statham and Aubrey Plaza involving a team of special agents who recruit one of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars to help them on an undercover mission.
Available to rent is Palm Trees and Power Lines, a coming-of-age drama starring Lily McInerny and Jonathan Tucker about a disconnected teenage girl whose relationship with an older man starts out promisingly but gets more complicated over time.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup