Frances O’Connor: ‘I’m putting Emily Brontë in the centre of her own story’

The actor turned writer-director is taking an unconventional approach to her feature film about the Wuthering Heights author, a passion project giving a romantic side to the supposed recluse

Frances O’Connor was a 15-year-old pupil at an all-girls Catholic school when she first read Wuthering Heights on the hour-long bus journey to and from her home in the hills outside Perth, Western Australia. “It was the feeling of the elements, and the environment, that I recognised so strongly from my own childhood,” she says. “I remember not wanting to leave that windy, gothic, slightly supernatural place to go back to the real world.”

She also loved “just how kickass Cathy and Heathcliff were – that feeling of being misunderstood and not belonging. As a teenager, their rebelliousness really spoke to me.” Forty years later, she has brought those sense memories to a story about the novel’s author Emily Brontë, in a directorial debut that she expects to enrage some purists while hoping it will inspire a new generation of young women as the novel once inspired her.

The woman who breezes up for a photoshoot and interview from her north London home, where she lives with her actor husband Gerald Lepkowski and their 17-year-old son, is simply and practically dressed for the turn of the English seasons. Though she has a makeup artist in tow, there’s nothing look-at-me about an actor whose own starring roles in period dramas have included the title role in Madame Bovary, Fanny Price in Mansfield Park and Rose, glamorous wife of the retail genius in the ITV hit series Mr Selfridge.

She speaks in a slight Australian accent, ending every sentence on an upward note, which has the effect of making statements into questions. “That’s a bit ageist?” she snaps, when I clumsily ask why she has left it so late to graduate from acting to directing. It’s a bracingly – and refreshingly – direct rebuke, which is of a piece with her explanation of a film that’s something of a feminist passion project. “I would have done it 10 years ago, but I just think women second guess ourselves a lot. And sometimes it takes us a while to get the courage to step into something that we really feel passionate about,” she says. “But if you’re going to tell a story now, I think it’s good for it to speak to women in a way that’s alive, rather than as something they’re looking at from behind a very respectful glass case.”

Emma Mackey as Emily Brontë in Frances O’Connor’s directorial debut.
Emma Mackey as Emily Brontë in Frances O’Connor’s directorial debut. Photograph: Michael Wharley

Emily is not a conventional biopic, a fact it signals early on with a creepy mask-play in which Emily (played by Sex Education’s Emma Mackey) freaks out her siblings by appearing to invoke the spirit of their dead mother. “Anyone who gets past the mask scene and thinks they’re still watching a biopic is probably in the wrong movie,” says O’Connor. The question that drives it is how the prickly recluse of historical record, holed up with her siblings in a parsonage (apart from a brief, disastrous stint as a schoolteacher), could have been able to summon such passion not only in her single novel but in her poetry.

O’Connor’s answer is to pair her up with one of the six curates who joined the Brontë household over the years: a man so beloved by the parishioners that he was memorialised by them, after his untimely death from cholera, in a plaque on the wall of Haworth church. William Weightman, it reads, was a man of “orthodox principles, active zeal, moral habits, learning, mildness and affability” – not the qualities that are brought most quickly to mind by Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s lusty portrayal.

Yes, but wasn’t it Anne Brontë with whom Weightman was thought to have had a romantic entanglement? “It is, but if you read up on it it’s disputed. There was one comment from Charlotte and that’s it,” says O’Connor, who cites a range of Brontë studies, not least one by Lucasta Miller, which argued that each age recreates the family in its own image. This may be fiction, but it has been conscientiously thought through.

O’Connor traces the seeds of the film back to the late 1990s, when she was in London as the lead in a star-studded film of Mansfield Park. Finding herself at a loose end when the writer-director went off sick for a fortnight, she jumped on a train to Haworth. “I was so in love with acting that I didn’t even think of directing. But I did think this is such an evocative place, and they’re such interesting characters. I felt a little bit close to them in a way, and there was something that was very cool about that. It just really piqued my imagination.”

* * *

As the middle child of five – with one brother and three sisters – who was born in the UK but emigrated to Australia when she was two years old, she felt a particular kinship with the Brontë siblings running wild on the Yorkshire moors. “We lived in the middle of nowhere and our mum, in classic 70s/80s style, would say: ‘I don’t want to see you till lunchtime.’ So we would just disappear for hours and use our imaginations to create worlds. We, too, loved roaming out on the land, and were our own best friends.”

While her siblings followed their physicist father into science, or took up musical instruments like their pianist mother, O’Connor asserted herself by becoming “a bit of a black sheep, a bit of a traveller”. Like Emily Brontë she is an introvert, she says, but she also had a middle child’s look-at-me survival instinct. At university in Western Australia she was introduced to critical thinking. “We did gendered reading and things that completely flipped your brain in terms of thinking about literature in a different way. It taught you that each person can have a completely different experience of a text, which is kind of helpful for this.”

O’Connor in Mansfield Park.
O’Connor in Mansfield Park. Photograph: Album/Alamy

Her international acting career took off when, as fugitive lover Nikki in Kiss Or Kill, one of three Australian films she made in two years, she caught the eye of the Canadian writer-director Patricia Rozema, who was looking for an actor who could free Jane Austen’s Fanny Price from her canonical straitjacket. O’Connor duly reinvented her, in a cast that included Harold Pinter, Jonny Lee Miller and Lindsay Duncan, as an ambitious but socially disadvantaged writer whose wit and integrity were two sides of the same coin.

Within a year she was up with the A-list, appearing alongside Elizabeth Hurley and Brendan Fraser in a remake of Bedazzled, Jude Law and William Hurt in Steven Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence, and Judi Dench and Rupert Everett in The Importance of Being Earnest. Though not all of her films were successes, she herself rarely put a foot wrong on screen or stage. And so it has continued, with more recent TV roles including the mother of an abducted boy in the heart-rending BBC drama The Missing, Hecuba in Troy: Fall of a City, and as Harriet Walter’s daughter in the euthanasia series The End.

“I’ve been lucky,” she says, but acting success doesn’t make a case for the financing of a directorial debut. “I was working at it between acting projects, but at a certain point five years ago I thought: I’ve got to get serious about this. Then the pandemic happened in the middle of financing. So it was very difficult. A lot of the funding bodies weren’t sure about me, but here was a group of people who really believed in me and the project, and my passion for it.”

Watch a trailer for Emily.

Emily was filmed on a shoestring, leaning heavily on the photogenically weather-racked landscapes of Yorkshire and Cumbria. A Cumbrian manor house stood in for Haworth parsonage. “There was this one windy road in and out of the house, but what’s interesting about it is that it was actually one of the things that inspired Emily to write Wuthering Heights because it was owned by a rum-trading colonist, and there was rumour that there was a slave who died there. I’m pretty sure it was haunted,” she says.

One theme that underpins the film is how hard it is for women to claim centre stage and how they edit their own lives to make themselves presentable. After the outcry that greeted publication of their novels, Charlotte Brontë devoted herself to curating the sisters’ reputation, with the result that nobody really knows the truth of them, says O’Connor. “I feel like Emily has been edited for a lot of her life. This is me taking her and putting her in the centre of her own story.”

She particularly hopes it will connect with young viewers, as a portrait of an original who followed her desires and her creativity. “In some ways this is a good time to be a woman: I see a younger generation coming up who are very forthright in terms of asking for what they want, in a way that maybe my generation didn’t,” she says. “But there’s always a gap between who women really are and who they’re supposed to be.”

Emily is in cinemas from 14 October


Claire Armitstead

The GuardianTramp

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