[Screen It]


(2023) (Emma Mackey, Oliver Jackson-Cohen) (R)

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Drama: Despite initially clashing with her mid-19th century preacher father's new assistant curate, an idiosyncratic young woman ends up falling for him, all while pursuing her love of writing.

It's the 1840s and Emily Brontė (EMMA MACKEY) is a young woman with lives with her three siblings -- Branwell (FIONN WHITEHEAD), Charlotte (ALEXANDRA DOWLING), and Anne (AMELIA GETHING) -- with their widowed parish preacher father, Patrick (ADRIAN DUNBAR), and their aunt (GEMMA JONES). While the future seems promising for her siblings, things seem less so for Emily who's seen as an odd duck of sorts by most of her family -- save for Branwell -- as well as the local townsfolk.

It doesn't help that she bristles at her interactions with her father's new assistant curate, William Weightman (OLIVER JACKSON-COHEN), who's tasked with improving her French language lessons. While the two initially clash, they eventually end up in a secret and torrid love affair. But when he has second thoughts, that throws Emily's life into a tailspin, all as she contemplates her life as a writer.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10

There's the age-old debate about which has a greater influence on who and what someone turns out to be, their innate nature or their environment that nurtures them for better or worse. And that becomes even more complicated when two or more siblings end up with the same gift.

Was it the fact that their common upbringing led them down the same path or perhaps the others simply copied the success of whoever was first? Or was it simply something in their genes that left all of them with similar abilities?

Whatever the answer might be, it certainly comes to mind when discussing the Brontė sisters who made a name for themselves -- or at least their alter-ego, male pennames -- via their poetry and novels in the not particularly female-creativity friendly environs of mid-19th century Yorkshire, England.

With two older siblings preceding them in death at young ages, Charlotte (who penned "Jane Eyre"), Anne ("Agnes Grey"), and Emily ("Wuthering Heights") only lived to be a few decades older than those (their brother, Branwell, also died early), but nonetheless created works still recognized today.

With not much known about them, it's open speculation whether their brief but remarkable literary prowess came from losing their mother at a young age or then being raised by their strict, minister father. Taking that available artistic license and running with it, actress turned first-time director Frances O'Connor now tackles the life -- and somewhat the times -- of Emily in a simply titled film bearing just her first name.

Working from her own screenplay, O'Connor delivers an intriguing, artsy, and handsomely mounted drama detailing the noted introvert's pre-"Wuthering Heights" existence and elements that may have helped -- in a variety and degree of ways -- fashion that tome.

I'll admit it's been more than four decades since I read the novel in high school and thus my memories of any parts of it are sketchy at best, so anyone hoping for a critique of any parallels or "this led to that" observations won't find any such answers or even guesses here.

Instead, I'll simply address how the film works as the portrayal of a gifted artist trying to find her way -- creatively and, ultimately, romantically -- in a place and particularly a time where the free will options of either for women weren't exactly plentiful. In fact, O'Connor depicts some of that as an outright psychological horror show, no doubt assisted by composer Abel Korzeniowski's muscularly haunting soundtrack that certainly gives off those genre vibes.

Emma Mackey stars as the title character and delivers a strong performance. And while I have no idea if she nails the portrayal of the real person, she certainly does for the type of young woman who's introverted yet bucks at tradition and the status quo, and views herself as the odd black sheep of the family in relation to her more successful (or at least possessing such potential) sisters (played by Alexandra Dowling and Amelia Gething). Naturally, her brother (Fionn Whitehead) is the chosen one in the family (being a male), but she finds a kindred creative spirit in him.

Due to her nature, she clashes with the newcomer to the scene, assistant curate William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) who's shown up to help her father at church. For anyone who's ever seen a romantic drama (or comedy for that matter), there's little doubt that the two will eventually enter into a romance. But when he abruptly cuts that off (in what comes off as a bit too much like a necessary plot development rather than a natural occurrence) things take a downward spiral but also serve as a literary catalyst for our protagonist.

For those who like their period costume dramas presented in the usual, straightforward fashion, the episodic nature of the story elements might a bit off-putting. And I have to admit that I didn't feel that emotionally engaged with any of the characters and instead felt a bit more like a psychologist historian observing the title character from a distance.

Overall, I liked the film, but only wished it leaned more heavily into its occasional horror-inspired elements depicting a woman tormented by both internal and external demons, so to speak. "Emily" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Posted February 24, 2023

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