"Emily Brontë is such a strange, strange person," says Emma Mackey. "But I’m protective of her—she is a gift of a woman to play."
The actress is talking about her titular character in Emily, a fictionalised biopic that arrived in cinemas this month. It is, of course, not the first time that the Brontë sisters have inspired actors, authors and directors: there are umpteen dramas, biographies, and novelisations devoted to the trio, who grew up with an alcoholic brother, widowed-priest father, and aunt in a draughty West Yorkshire parsonage. The story of the three writers, who at first attributed their manuscripts to made-up men’s names in order to be published, and went on to produce some of Britain’s best-loved novels and poems, has beguiled readers for generations. While the youngest sister, Anne, has a loyal following, fans’ focus tends to be on the eldest, Charlotte, who wrote Jane Eyre, and Emily, the author of Wuthering Heights and a subject of fascination for the actress Frances O’Connor, who makes her directorial debut with this compelling new film. Thanks to a dearth of historic records, Emily’s life has long troubled biographers, prompting O’Connor to write and direct a reimagining of the "misfit" middle sister in her twenties. We see Emily flounder and fail at becoming a teacher, both locally and in Brussels, return home, write her astonishing, controversial novel about love, betrayal, and revenge, and become the first sister to die from tuberculosis.
Told by a dynamic cast that combines a cohort of rising stars with industry stalwarts, including a bespectacled Adrian Dunbar as the siblings’ father Patrick Brontë and a bonneted Gemma Jones as their Aunt Branwell, this is a tale of suppression, sisterhood, and the search for intellectual and emotional freedom. Much of the intrigue comes from how the introverted Emily variously connects with and disconnects from society and other people: her difficult relationship with Charlotte is accentuated, as is her discovery of forbidden love with her father’s enigmatic new assistant curate William Weightman. Running throughout the drama, rivetingly delivered by Mackey, is its heroine’s own abstruse, funny, mercurial brilliance.
The actress, who rose to fame as Maeve in the Netflix hit Sex Education, brings great physicality to Emily—O’Connor says she cast Mackey because she has "something animal" about her that contrasts powerfully with the atmosphere of conservative restraint around her. "Emily is sometimes very still, but often wrestling with the elements, with the landscape, and she feels and responds to things viscerally," Mackey says. "I don’t think you have to intellectualise her feelings or reactions—she is always instinctive."
Her Emily is multifaceted: a loner, a dreamer, a dissident, a cauldron of imagination, and also just a daughter who misses her dead mother. "She is constantly trying to ask the others, 'Do you want to talk about Mum? Because I do,'" Mackey says, referring to an extraordinary set piece involving a possible "visit" from Mrs Brontë’s spirit that could have been silly, but is both gripping and moving to watch. "The Victorians were hardly known for liberally sharing emotion, so that scene is about how far she’s willing to go to get her silent family to wake up and meet her in the middle somewhere," the actress explains. The hardship is punctuated by some delightful moments of levity and unexpected humour, provided by the deft dialogue and Mackey’s rock-steady stare and recurring raised eyebrow. "I have a very expressive face. I try to control it," she deadpans.
The actress found depicting her subject both a pleasure and a psychologically gruelling challenge. "Clearly, Emily Brontë and I are very different people, but what we do have in common is being a bit singular, wanting to tell stories and to be in control of them," Mackey says. Will young women in 2022 relate to this Emily—an independent spirit, finding her identity and place in a man’s world? "I don’t want her to be seen as the kooky rebel, who goes off on this adventure of self-discovery to smoke pot, have sex and find herself. I don’t think she would have thought, 'Oh, I’m being so feminist right now,'" she says. "It’s more complicated and also more pure than that. She exists in her own right."
The project was filmed entirely in Yorkshire, making this a full-circle moment for Mackey, who studied English at Leeds University. "I grew up in France but was raised on period dramas, so it was always my dream to run around the moors in a crinoline," she says with a smile. "I chose this film because it felt fresh, with a punchy script."
That script comes courtesy of O’Connor, who has spent 10 years working on the project and is herself one of four siblings. "Wuthering Heights has been my favourite book since I was a teenager, and there’s something in Emily that I really identified with—as an introvert with a large imaginative life, too," says the actress-turned-director. "I always knew I wanted to write a story about this young woman working herself out, because I love celebrating imperfections."
To offset the dour weather, 19th-century repression and tragic plot twists, O’Connor knew her protagonists needed to have a certain warmth. "If you’re asking the audience to go somewhere a bit dark, you have to give them characters they love, so they’re willing to go on that journey," she says.
When I visited the film set—Broughton Hall, a Georgian stately home in the Yorkshire Dales—on a boiling-hot day last summer, it was clear that the cast had taken O’Connor’s instruction to heart: every member spoke about the Brontë they were inhabiting with the affection and frustration you would afford an old friend. For Alexandra Dowling, playing Charlotte was a bittersweet experience. "When someone’s your hero, you don’t necessarily want to see their crueller side," she observes. "In our story, Charlotte is almost the antagonist—I’ve found it quite a fight learning to surrender to that. But I love how, in her letters, Charlotte—the timid, meek, responsible eldest—is full of all this sass. It’s such a meaty relationship, Emily and Charlotte’s. Emily is a mystery to her—she’s a burden, but also an inspiration; Charlotte wants to compete with her, but also protect her." Meanwhile, Amelia Gething, who makes a convincing Anne—both poised and playful—found herself able to empathise with the youngest sister’s position as a peacemaker. "She sees Charlotte’s needs, Branwell’s issues and Emily’s anxieties, and is just trying to keep everyone chill," Gething says. "I’m basically the mediator in my own family, so that came easily, but I didn’t want her to just be the background sister, because she can totally hold her own."
As they were on location in the midst of the Covid pandemic, the three female leads were put into a "bubble" during shooting. Holed up in a big house in the Dales together, they forged the sort of friendship that they agree helped produce their characters’ rapport, which beautifully evidences all the sharp edges and tenderness of a close family. "We had such a happy time up in Yorkshire," says Gemma Jones. "For my part, I loved climbing into Aunt Branwell’s corset. It has been a sentimental job for me—Jane Eyre is one of my all-time top books. I have spent years imagining Mr Rochester coming up over the vale... I’m still waiting for him, I think!"
The romance and tragedy of the Brontë novels bleed into the narrative of Emily, which has deliberate parallels with Wuthering Heights. Inevitably, there will be die-hard fans and historians who will wince at the idea of watching an "imagined" life of their heroines, featuring modern turns of phrase and seduction scenes—and the cast and crew are ready for that. But sceptical audiences will be rewarded for taking a punt on going to see the film, which aims to explore the heart and the "person" of Emily Brontë, not the myth.
"The whole story is about a woman working out how not to be stuck—and I think that’s a pretty good place to start," Mackey says. "Emily definitely figured out how to write. She writes one novel, it’s a masterpiece, and then she pops her clogs. As for figuring herself or her life out, we’ll actually never know. Which is quite wonderful."
Emily was released in cinemas nationwide on 14 October.
This piece originally appeared in the print edition of Harper's Bazaar UK.