Director: Frances O’Connor (GB. USA), Year of Release: 2022
Emily Brontë’s deathbed. Sister Charlotte interrupts her obvious discomfort by asking her “How did you write Wuthering Heights? How could you write such an ugly book?”
Wuthering Heights was published in December 1847, on the eve of the Communist Manifesto and the revolutionary wave which swept Europe. In the West Riding of Yorkshire, where the book was written, the Chartists were organising working class resistance. Although the novel is sometimes seen as a slightly better written Mills and Boon romance, one of its most memorable scenes involves the garrotting of a pet dog. It is powerful, class conscious and rages against injustice.
You’ll get none of that in this film.
Emily, the film, is populated by women in bonnets and corsets who need helping over a style. The Brontë sisters have the poshest voices I have heard from anyone in West Yorkshire, including now gentrified Haworth. This is all the more odd as their father and brother speak with a local accent. Sometimes when Emily is chatting to brother Branwell, her vowels start to flatten, but it’s hard to tell whether this is an editorial decision or a case of wandering accent syndrome.
Emily is shy and repressed. The people in the village refer to her as “the strange one” and even Charlotte has a go at her for bringing her down. She is socially awkward, and after their father finds her a job teaching at Charlotte’s school, it’s not long before she’s recuperating at home because she can’t cope with too many people. She colludes with Anne in writing stories which sound intensely childish, until Anne tells her elder sister that it’s time to grow up.
In one scene, which has been lauded by some critics, Emily shows a different side of herself. A group of people are playing a game where one dons a porcelain mask and the others try to guess who is inhabiting them. Emily has so far not taken part in the game – it’s not her sort of thing – but they talk her into giving it just one go. She takes on the persona of her dead mother and scares the living shit out of the rest of them.
This has the potential be a memorable scene – indeed I do remember it, though not for the right reasons. The fact that Emily says she is her mother has led some to ask if she was really possessed (she concedes later in the film that it was just an act). But nothing that she says or does is actually scary. She just says she’s her mother, like the previous participant said she was Marie Antoinette. For not the only time in the film, a molehill is inappropriately built into a mountain.
Largely rejected by her father and sisters, Emily spends increasing amounts of time with her dissolute brother, Branwell. Sent by their aunt to bring him back from the pub, she stops for a few drinks. It’s not long before they’re getting matching tattoos (“Freedom of Thought”) and she’s nicking his opium. Then Branwell gets banished to Luddendon Foot for (molehill alert) going to other people’s houses and looking in at them through their windows.
Emily’s head starts to be turned by her father’s new curate, William Weightman. We first see Weightman giving platitudinous sermons, before he is assigned to be Emily’s French teacher. She spars with him about his blind faith – if wiping the floor with someone who’s a bit simple counts as sparring. But Weightman is tall and ok looking, so I think we’re expected to ignore the fact that he rarely has anything of interest to say. Let’s just say that he’s no Heathcliff.
While Emily is sleeping with the local vicar, Charlotte has been persuaded by their father to give up her aspiration to write and concentrate on her teaching. Charlotte is given a very raw deal throughout the film. Whereas Emily is pretty and sultry, her elder sister is dowdied down. She’s the conservative one who always does father’s bidding. The films contention is that Charlotte was only motivated to write as a reaction to the tragic death by tuberculosis of her sister.
It’s bullshit, of course. Jane Eyre – hardly the work of the reactionary traditionalist portrayed in this film – was published before Wuthering Heights, and wasn’t even Charlotte’s first novel. While we’re at it – why is the book published under the name “Emily Brontë”? All three sisters were forced to use male pseudonyms because of prevailing sexism. I know that this isn’t supposed to be a pure biography, but too many key plotlines are based on things which are demonstrably false.
Does any of this really matter? Would Emily have been a better film if it were written about a less revolutionary writer? Maybe not, but it would certainly have been less disappointing. I find the attempt to portray Emily Brontë as a romantic lead to be quite insulting, as is the suggestion that one of the greatest novels in world literature is a fortunate by-product of sisterly disapproval and someone being dumped.
Other people have reacted much more positively, but I just found myself asking, what is the point of Emily? It doesn’t tell us more about the writer, as so much is based on events which didn’t happen. And we don’t learn more about Wuthering Heights, other than it is a superior work of art in just about every aspect. I guess it reflects the prevailing idea that the novel is just a love story, when it is in truth so much more. You don’t need to see this film, but do go and read the book.