Ztwo scenes make this film unforgettable. In one, Emily Brontë dons a Venetian mask during a family role-play and begins speaking in her dead mother’s voice. Her sisters Charlotte and Anne are annoyed and then disturbed by her performance. Anne, the youngest, panics. Suddenly, a strange presence wafts through the room. “Mom, we miss you!” Anne wails. A window flies open, a gust of wind extinguishes the candlelight. Finally, Emily takes off the mask.
In the second scene, the poet Emily sits in front of a blank sheet of paper. She pauses, then blows out her candle and opens the window. The camera follows her gaze into the darkness, over the treetops into the black sky. The sounds of the night penetrate the room like a gentle stream. In the ringing darkness, Emily begins to write.
The two scenes are a mirror image of what the film “Emily” wants to tell us about Emily Brontë. She is able to captivate others, and she is captivated by what she sees and feels. Emily is a woman under influence, a medium, as one would have called it in the nineteenth century, who tries to compensate for the disenchantment of the world in the wake of industrialization with all sorts of superstition and mystical frippery. But Frances O’Connor, the director, doesn’t want to go that far.
The Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, were daughters of an Anglican minister in West Yorkshire in the early nineteenth century. They would be out of the question today if they hadn’t written three novels that are part of the canon of English literature: Agnes Gray (Anne), Jane Eyre (Charlotte) and The Wuthering Heights (Emily). Her brother Branwell, an unsuccessful painter, died of alcoholism in 1848. Emily, only thirty, followed him that same year. A year later, Anne succumbed to tuberculosis. Only Charlotte lived to see the lightning of her literary fame, which, however, was dampened by the fact that, like her sisters, she had published her books under a pseudonym.
Not only the three novels, but also the lives of the three Brontë sisters have been filmed several times. Curtis Bernhardt’s 1946 Devotion stars Olivia de Havilland, Ida Lupino and Nancy Coleman, while André Téchiné (1979) stars Isabelle Adjani, Marie-France Pisier and Isabelle Huppert. In both films, the sibling bond is the focus. Not in Emily. Here the hierarchy is clear from the start: there’s Emily and there’s everyone else. The fact that the plot begins with Emily’s infirmity doesn’t change that.
She wanted to let nature take its course
The real Emily Brontë has refused to cure her pneumonia; she wanted, she said, to let nature take its course. Same here. But in the end the pale patient sinks onto a sofa and waits for the doctor. Her sister Charlotte leans over her and asks in a trembling voice, “How did you write it? How did you write ‘The Wuthering Heights’?” It’s the puzzle the film is trying to solve. Luckily he doesn’t solve it.