TIFF: Emily Exam
Actress-turned-director Frances O’Connor is hauntingly beautiful and dazzlingly ethereal Emily is a highly speculative portrait of the famed author’s rocky journey to writing the literary classic “Wuthering Heights.” And yet he taps into a rare, visually poetic vein that wonderfully captures the invigorating truth of his experiences, even if much of what is depicted did not happen.
There’s a playful wonder to the film’s depiction of the trials, tribulations, and painful romances that honestly underlie the classic writings we all know. With this stunning start, O’Connor suggests that only the emotive truth of the prose is what matters, not the simple facts of what happened. While the real Brontë may not have been on screen, this vibrant tale acts as an indelible shadow-truth that will endure long after the facts have turned to dust.
Marked as “the strange one”, the second youngest of the Brontë siblings, Emily (Emma Mackey) has a vivid imagination and an innate disregard for the social formalities of the time. Unabashedly the black sheep, her unruly disposition and predilection for intoxicants lead her not only down a path of artistic discovery but also of romantic ruin – as she begins a surreptitious and perilous love affair with her French tutor ( Oliver Jackson-Cohen).
Evoking Stanley Kubrick’s pictorial lens Barry Lyndon, the film’s sound and visual design are brilliantly layered in its composition, lending a decadent and epic sheen to its tale of heartbreak, self-discovery and family strife. Additionally, the lush imagery also imbues its depiction of the West Yorkshire moors with a melancholy quality that is only emboldened by its beautiful natural lighting. This, in tandem with the witty, lyrical and utterly moving dialogue, creates a singular and thoroughly engrossing experience that gracefully winds its way to its conclusion with a surge of deserved emotions.
While the film is sophisticated in its evocation of Emily Brontë’s tumultuous life is clearly funny, chock-full of wit and slyly eloquent humor. Though it relies on the setting of a traditional bio-pic (sometimes too much), O’Connor taps into the same verdant beauty and romantic ripostes that inspired its subject matter, allowing for an experience that excels both as a fading romance and as a powerful exploration of a woman trying to fulfill her calling.
Although imbued with great technical savvy, he is never too forgiving, instead submerging his liberal approach to Brontë’s journey of self-discovery in an aura of genuine and sincere, making it utterly resonant and believable as to why she goes against current European standards and goes the provocative and brazenly mischievous route.
Despite being an unequivocal visual marvel, Emily wouldn’t be nearly as deep without its bevy of eye-opening performances. Emma Mackey stands out as a name to remember, as her nuanced turn perfectly embodies the contemplative and rebellious demeanor of this fascinating character. She is in command of her surroundings, elevating the storyline tactfully with fiery passion.
Fionn Whitehead as Branwell, Emily’s brother and only ally, is also a joy to watch as his euphoric buzzing, stumbling and dancing enliven the film’s fervent witticisms. Oliver Jackson-Cohen as William Weightman, Emily’s tortured lover, pierces audiences with his elegiac eyes, which poignantly embody his character’s total acquiescence to her desires – in direct conflict with his sermons flowery, who see piety in chastity.
Emily is a meteoric debut by Frances O’Conner. He finds immediate and moving truths in speculation while captivating and unconventionally immersing you in his dismal view of a life spent seeking the momentum of artistic creation. In the middle of the film, the adage “freedom of thought” durably marks not only Emily’s trajectory but also ours. How we hope to find the same kind of release in our own personal reflections.
The 47th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8 to 18. Find all of our coverage here.