‘Emily’ Review: The Story of Emily Brontë Makes For Paralyzing Tedium On The Screen

Despite strong visual appeal and a star performance from Emma Mackey this rendering of the Brontë family saga gets almost everything wrong.

Emma Mackey in ‘Emily.’ Bleecker Street

The movies just can’t get it right about the Brontë sisters. The family story of a strict, disciplinary, widowed Anglican vicar with a wild, uncontrollable son and a trio of repressed daughters who lived in a parsonage and ended up shocking the world by writing passionate potboilers that became historic literary classics is obvious fodder for Victorian soap opera. What a pity, then, that the fever-pitch hysteria of their melodramatic tale has made for such paralyzing tedium on the screen.  

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EMILY ★★ (2/4 stars)
Directed by: Frances O'Connor
Written by: Frances O'Connor
Starring: Emma Mackey, Fionn Whitehead, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Alexandra Dowling, Amelia Gething, Adrian Dunbar, Gemma Jones
Running time: 130 mins.

Emily, a colossal bore that centers on Emily Brontë in the days before she wrote Wuthering Heights, is the latest bafflingly overrated attempt to turn the Brontë saga into a box-office triumph. Despite its visual appeal, its concentrated star performance by Emma Mackey and the dedicated obsession of Australian actress Frances O’Connor, making her debut as a writer-director, it gets almost everything wrong and seems more like a work of fiction than a believable biopic.

Emily, the second-youngest of the Brontë siblings, was three years old when her mother died, and thereafter haplessly desperate for the love of her father, a stern and humorless cleric who was eternally appalled by the overactive imagination and disregard for acceptable social behavior that eventually turned her into a writer of elegant pulp fiction. Emily’s ally was her brother Branwell, the alcoholic black sheep of the family, who introduced her to brandy, opium and sex in a series of fanciful, self-indulgent escapades that are not, in Ms. O’Connor’s long and tedious screenplay, entirely plausible. I liked Emily better in the 1946 Warner Brothers epic Devotion, when she was played by Ida Lupino. That was a black-and-white Hollywood concoction equally crammed with fictitious euphoria, but at least it was interesting. The Brontë sisters were vividly alive when acted by Lupino, Olivia de Havilland and Nancy Coleman, and Arthur Kennedy gave a memorable performance as Branwell, the tortured alcoholic who frittered away his life as a painter.

In this new version, played by Fionn Whitehead, he’s a writer with no talent, not an artist, who competes with his sisters penning unreadable prose instead of preserving them on canvas. Frolicking across the Yorkshire moors  with Emily while they get arrested for spying on their neighbors at night through closed windows as budding peeping toms, he seems more like one of those  precocious high school pranksters who claims the dog ate his homework.  Instead of the bitch Olivia de Havilland played in Devotion, Alexandra Dowling’s Charlotte Brontë is now the gentlest and sweetest of the three sisters, so ill-defined you’d never suspect she would someday write Jane Eyre, while Anne Brontë (Amelia Gething) is reduced to the status of a walk-on.

Other historical gaffes pop up throughout. (Jane Eyre was published before Wuthering Heights, not after, and under a man’s pseudonym, not the name Emily Brontë.) The movie doesn’t bother to speculate about the inner forces that inspired Emily to write anything at all, but concentrates instead on inventing a naive romance with her French tutor (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) while he was employed as her father’s curate—a character who never existed.  None of this has anything whatsoever to do with the creative dynamics of writing, and nothing about the way Emma Mackey plays her illuminates the tempestuous nature of Emily’s scandalous life that paved the way on her journey to becoming a literary legend.  lease refrain from visiting any cinema showing Emily, especially if you snore.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Emily’ Review: The Story of Emily Brontë Makes For Paralyzing Tedium On The Screen