Thursday, February 16, 2023

Emily: The Middle Bronte Sister

Except for a few poems also published, Emily Bronte is basically a one-hit wonder, but as part of the Bronte Sisters, she doesn’t seem like one. Of course, the Brontes wouldn’t be the same Brontes without Wuthering Heights. Her short but appropriately melodramatic life is somewhat speculatively dramatized in director-screenwriter Frances O’Connor’s Emily, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Emily is always considered the flaky Bronte sister, especially her father, Patrick. The stern minister expected all his surviving daughters to be educated and find employment as teachers, but Emily fell apart whenever she left the Bronte ancestral home. If it was any consolation, her ne-er-do-well brother Branwell is an even greater disappointment, so naturally they bond over their love of poetry and mischievous pranks.

Initially, the middle Bronte sister think very little of the new curate, William Weightman, who shares her father’s faith-above-reason approach to theology. At first, she resents his moralizing, especially when tutoring her in French. However, their bickering eventually melts into an ill-fated romance.

Bronte’s relationship with Weightman is almost entirely fictionalized, as are some of the colorful gothic episodes O’Connor cooks up, but they all fit with the Bronte legend. In fact, there are some sequences with a creepy mask that are surprisingly cool and effective.

Regardless, Emma Mackey is terrific as the titular Bronte, in ways that are both passionate and cerebral. She and Oliver Jackson-Cohen generate a lot of
Thornbird-y heat together, bringing a great, tragic romance to life. However, the other Bronte sisters (Alexandre Dowling as Charlotte and Amelia Gething as Anne) definitely get the short end of O’Connor’s screenplay. Both come across as nearly indistinguishably prim schoolmarms. Adrian Brody is making a second career out of portraying difficult father, but he has some rather poignant moments late in the film, as Rev. Patrick.

sure looks like a Bronte novel, which was obviously the idea. It is more mature than the typical BBC/PBS literary drama, but in ways that serve the story well. Mackey should get a lot of attention, perhaps becoming the next Anne Hathaway as a result, but hopefully without the same political baggage. Recommended for Bronte readers, Emily opens Friday (2/17) in New York, at the AMC Lincoln Square and the Angelika Film Center.