Becoming Jane. Miss Potter. Dickinson. However slight the recorded romantic history of a well-known female author is, you can be sure it will become a key part of her biopic. Joining the trend now is this account of the life of Emily Brontë, which spends a chunk of its time on a romance that may not have happened. It’s well played and well written, but it’s an odd addition to a story that is remarkable even without invention: studios need to start letting spinsters be spinsters.
Debutante director Frances O’Connor, previously best known for her acting roles in the likes of Mansfield Park, shows a real feel for the texture and tenor of the Brontë sisters’ lives here as she establishes a bustling, intellectually vibrant house for the three sisters – Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling), Emily (Emma Mackey) and Anne (Amelia Gething) – their brother Branwell (Dunkirk’s Fionn Whitehead) and vicar father Patrick (Adrian Dunbar). Our heroine, Emily, spends her time out on the moors dreaming up new stories and struggles to limit herself to the role available to her in 19th century society. Enter William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the vicarage’s new curate.
The love story that follows is delicately played by both. O’Connor just manages to step around the tropes of the genre as the two young intellectuals move from vague hostility to true connection. Nanu Segal’s cinematography backs them up, switching from colours of rain and heather to sun and wind, bringing a sense of change and hope. Sure, the affair doesn’t sit entirely comfortably with the known facts of the rest of Emily’s life, and isn’t necessary to explain how this fiery woman wrote such a passionate book, but as a piece of screen fantasy it has real emotional impact.
Studios need to start letting spinsters be spinsters
The film is strongest, however, when it focuses on this odd little family and their extraordinary achievements – on the competition and support between the siblings, and all their kindnesses and cruelties. That’s the environment that made Emily Brontë who she was and helped her write what she did, and that is fascinating to see brought to life.
In US theaters Feb 17, 2023