Emily Is Not the Biopic Emily Brontë Deserves

Emily Brontë is one of the most uniquely brilliant women writers who ever lived, the perfect subject for a feminist biopic. She deserves better than the shallow pop feminism of the new movie Emily.

Still from Emily. (Obscured Pictures)

If you’re aware of the film Emily, the new biopic of writer Emily Brontë, author of Wuthering Heights, it’s probably because it’s doing surprisingly solid business for a modestly budgeted period piece and is being widely lauded by critics and delighted audience members. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times praises the film by saying approvingly that it “takes a frisky approach to its source material.”

Let’s just pause here to consider this statement. The film represents a “frisky approach” to the life of Emily Brontë. “Frisky.” FRISKY. If there’s one word that should never be applied to the searing, tragic, yet magnificent life of Emily Brontë — or, hell, any Brontë — it’s “frisky.”

But Dargis isn’t wrong in this descriptive term, because if you don’t know much of anything about Emily Brontë and you see this new film, you’ll get the impression she was an irreligious, sexy minx with fetchingly tousled hair who screwed her father’s cute curate (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) in the barn after he’d counseled her to learn to love nature in order to endure her drab life in her father’s parsonage on the moors. You’ll also get the impression that Emily (Emma Mackey of Sex Education) was enabled to write the thunderous Gothic novel Wuthering Heights because of her hot, forbidden love life. That, plus her experiences running around the moors high on opiates with her wild brother Brandon (Fionn Whitehead of Dunkirk).

And you’ll discover that Emily’s father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë (Adrian Dunbar), was a mean, cold bastard, making all the sisters go to church and overstrain themselves acquiring scholarly accomplishments so they could get themselves hired out as teachers and governesses. For no reason at all!

You’ll also find out that Emily’s sensational book, which was followed immediately by her death at age thirty, inspired her prissy sister Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) to get down off her high horse and write Jane Eyre. As for Anne Brontë (Amelia Gething), she never did anything interesting.

That’s pretty much the level actor Frances O’Connor is working on in making her film debut as writer-director of this version of Emily Brontë’s life story, which amounts to cinematic libel. Critics write breathlessly about O’Connor’s important experiences as an actor in period literary adaptations giving her the chops to tackle this subject so fearlessly. Specifically, O’Connor starred in a loose and extremely frisky adaptation of Mansfield Park in 1999, playing the lead role of Fanny Price as a healthy, outspoken extrovert — the opposite qualities of the character of Fanny Price as written by Jane Austen.

If you’ve seen the film, you’ll remember that the final scene involves Fanny getting a tattoo of her love Edmund’s name on her ass. So you can see where O’Connor got her ideas about adapting nineteenth-century women-centered literature.

One of the few disapproving reviews of Emily, by Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, states:

O’Connor, an actress . . . making her directorial debut, calls upon [Emma] Mackey to evoke and embody Emily Brontë while furnishing her with a life and personality entirely different from that of the famous author. This is an impossible task. Forget about writing “Wuthering Heights”; I don’t believe this Emily could read it.

It’s not that there are no good aspects to the film. The cinematography by Nanu Segal is beautiful and memorable at points. For example, the scene in which curate William Weightman is striding across the moors to keep a tryst with Emily waiting in the barn, and the image of him is framed by a barn window. The shots cut back and forth between the palpitating Emily and the approaching curate, with each shot of him bringing William farther forward than the time-frame would seem to allow, creating a surging shock effect that reflects her own emotions.

And the most memorable scene, shot in moody shadows, involves a guessing game featuring an eerie white mask and the challenge of the wearer evoking a chosen personality the others have to guess at. Emily puts it on and seems to summon the spirit of the Brontë children’s long-dead mother in a way that terrifies and overwhelms them.

But such effects can’t make up for a basically silly approach to the material. There’s a framing question in Emily, posed by the pinched prig sister Charlotte while Emily Brontë lies on her deathbed: “How did you write Wuthering Heights?”

The long answer is in flashback. The other disapproving review of the film points out,

One bad idea presides over Emily, sapping its better moments of their originality. That idea is one that often comes up in films about writers: the notion that no one could possibly write well about something they hadn’t experienced directly. The 2007 movie Becoming Jane assured its viewers that Jane Austen was only able to produce so many great novels about young women finding true love because she had attained and (unlike her heroines) lost it herself. . . . [But] romantic love is arguably the predominate theme of Western literature and culture, especially the parts of it with which the Brontës were familiar. It’s not as if they (or anyone else) needed first-hand experience to know anything about extravagant passion, given how much, and how widely, they read.

Nevertheless, this is the stupid question that has long preoccupied literary critics and readers ever since the book was first published under the male pseudonym Ellis Bell. The qualities of the book that shocked people — its ferocity, rawness of emotion, perceived coarseness and violence, and heretical views — were the very ones that made many people sure it was “a man’s book,” impossible for a fragile, gentle, unworldly woman to have written. You’ll still occasionally run across some moron claiming that Wuthering Heights must’ve been written by Branwell Brontë because it’s simply too powerful a book to have been written by a woman. This view was satirized in the 1932 novel Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons, in which the heroine is pestered by a tiresome Bohemian pedant who’s writing a book called Pard-Spirit: A Study of Branwell Brontë, claiming that “it’s obvious that it’s his book and not Emily’s. No woman could’ve written that. It’s male stuff.”

It’s to the Bohemian’s claim that “his sisters hated him because of his genius” and conspired to take the credit from Branwell. While he slaved away fifteen hours a day writing all their novels, they slandered him as a drunken wreck in order to hide their own dipsomania from the public.

The film Emily isn’t quite that extravagant in its reimagining of what was going on in the lives of the Brontë family when it comes to explaining their authorship. Yet it achieves its own kind of idiocy that’s all the more distressing for the way the film is getting credit for presenting Emily Brontë afresh, as a feminist figure, as if she hadn’t been considered a feminist figure for generations. But this is the new, improved pop feminism, now with extra spunk! And we know what that means. Some generically victimized woman character will “find her voice,” experience a sexual awakening, lean in, persist, and show her male oppressors they were wrong to underestimate her.

The worst of it is, Emily Brontë is one of the most uniquely brilliant women who ever lived, the perfect subject for a feminist biopic.

The Historical Brontë

The Brontë sisters finding a way to express themselves so fully and brilliantly and shockingly, despite the cruel gender and class constrictions of their lives, makes them merit serious biographies by great feminist filmmakers. They created relatively few literary works — their obsessive, intricately plotted, world-building juvenilia, written from childhood on (with their brother Branwell); a jointly published book of poetry written under their male pseudonyms of Ellis, Currer, and Acton Bell; and a small armload of novels, written in a white heat of productivity in their short lives. Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Gray were accepted for publication earlier, while Charlotte’s initial effort, The Professor, was turned down. But her second novel, Jane Eyre, was accepted and published so rapidly, it was made public before any of the others — and created a sensation.

Once her identity was discovered, the book made Charlotte Brontë so renowned that her fame cast a fainter but still lurid glow on her sisters’ works as well. And if many found Jane Eyre rather shocking, Wuthering Heights was a scandal.

Ultimately, all of the sisters wrote great novels — Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and her brilliantly modernist Villette, and Anne’s unjustly neglected The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, can stand alongside Emily’s fiercely written Wuthering Heights on any shelf. But when it comes to amazing lives, though all were interesting women, Emily towers above the others. She was so strong that, far from being victimized by the restrictions placed on women’s lives in early nineteenth-century England, she forged a solitary path for herself through a secret door of her own making to find freedom within apparently narrow domestic entrapment. Her own siblings found her mysterious and a little scary.

Still from Emily. (Obscured Pictures)

The key story of Emily’s life is the one about her having been attacked by a possibly rabid dog. Her response was to come home, heat a knife blade to a searing temperature, and stoically cauterize her own wound.

No one had to counsel Emily to love nature — it was her leading characteristic. People who knew her reported that she would come home from long walks on the moors with her face almost transfigured by ecstasy, as of one who’d been in direct contact with the sublime. Her primary relationships beyond her immediate family — she was especially close to her sister Anne — were with animals. Her dog Keeper was described as practically her twin soul, and she frequently returned home with injured animals, or lost baby animals, that she’d raise and rehabilitate herself.

Given this, the complete lack of animals in the heroine’s life in Emily is an astounding omission. In fact, judging from the film, almost all animal life has been eradicated from 1840s Yorkshire.

Emily Brontë would never have said anything so ridiculous as Emily’s line in the film about being trapped in her narrow, dreary life on the moors. The greatest thing that ever happened to her was being relieved of the burden of having to go out into the world to earn a living, as the other Brontë children had to do. And far from having to be rebuked by her sister Charlotte for her idle ways, as happens in the film (“Don’t be a burden, Emily”), she took her responsibilities so seriously, she wouldn’t give up fulfilling her household duties while she was desperately ill from tuberculosis, even when her family begged her to lie down. She only laid down to die.

It was an urgent matter for Patrick, shared by the Brontë children, that they all, including the girls, be trained for working lives, because his house and income would be lost upon his death. This became an even more pressing matter when Branwell failed to establish himself in any of the careers he attempted, including artist, writer, tutor, and stationmaster — he soon fell into dissolute habits, depression, illness, and early death. The sisters had no other financial resources and, faced with the prospect of having no father or brother to support them, the great fear was that they’d all be left destitute. It was one of the tragic ironies of the Brontë family that Patrick outlived all his children by many years.

Charlotte and Anne endured for a while the grinding misery of lives as governesses and low-level teachers, positions that often earned one very little respect from affluent adults or their children. These harsh experiences informed their novels. Meanwhile, though Emily was tasked with running the household, she was also enabled to spend hours on most days of her life roaming her beloved moors and writing extraordinary literary works. She’s considered the only great poet in the Brontë family.

Still from Emily. (Obscured Pictures)

Emily couldn’t endure “society.” Though an excellent scholar, she failed in her few agonizing attempts to get the formal education required to train for a job as teacher or governess, because she found life among strangers insupportable. Its virtually disabling effects upon her are dramatized in the film. She couldn’t withstand the regimentation and restrictions and suffocating self-consciousness of public life. “Freedom was the breath of life to her,” Charlotte wrote of her, and she found that freedom on the moors and in her own writing.

Yet critics are buying wholesale the film’s idea that Emily was a woman whose whole life was pathetically crabbed and unfulfilled:

Despite writing one of the most rugged and enduring novels in all English literature before her 30th — and final — birthday, Emily Brontë spent the whole of her life in a suffocating environment that saw her brilliant imagination dampened at every turn.

If only my imagination could be one-tenth as undampened as Emily Brontë’s! Here’s a passage from Wuthering Heights conveying the intensity of vision and feeling she could summon. In it, her anti-heroine Cathy recounts her blasphemous dream of dying, going to heaven, and then rejecting the realm of God in favor of the moors:

Heaven did not seem to be my home, and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth, and the angels grew so angry that they flung me out onto the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke to sob for joy.

Writing that is kind of a big deal for the daughter of an Irish-born Anglican priest, by the way.

Not that any of this will matter to the majority of people who want to go see this film, I have to acknowledge. It’s enraging, but as far as I can tell, the simple version of complex, compelling subject matter is ever more preferred. Nobody much cares that Emily Brontë was nothing like this doofus portrayed in Emily, or that a wiser, more visceral, less falsely pretty film based on the actual life of the woman would be a hundred times more thrilling. The swoony romance, the dopey explanation for literary achievement, the fake feminism — people like that stuff. In this case, I write for the tiny minority of possible viewers who have some sort of investment in the Brontë sisters and their writing and can still be warned off.