Frances O’Connor had her performing break back in 1999 playing Fanny in an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, in which she famously went toe-to-toe on screen with Harold Pinter who was playing her uncle Sir Thomas Bertram. Now she has made a really impressive debut as a writer and director with this study of Emily Brontë, intelligently played by the Franco-British star Emma Mackey. It’s beautifully acted, lovingly shot, fervently and speculatively imagined, although Mackey’s portrayal, excellent as it is, may be smoother around the edges and less windblown than the real thing.
This is a sensually imaginative dive into the life of the Wuthering Heights author: it is a real passion project for O’Connor, with some wonderfully arresting insights. The film conforms to time-honoured biopic tradition by starting with Emily on her deathbed, and a waspish, querulous final exchange with her sister Charlotte, played by Alexandra Dowling, whom the film mostly – and perhaps unfairly – sees as mean-minded and envious. Then we go back to her intense young womanhood at Haworth parsonage, under the care of her widower clergyman father Patrick (Adrian Dunbar) in the wild beauty of Yorkshire.
The drama shows Emily’s creative path to writing her masterpiece as a matter of coming to terms with, and surmounting, the two great loves of her life. First is her brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead), a witty and artistically inclined young man frittering away what minor talent he has with dissolute behaviour. And then there is William Weightman, high-minded assistant curate to Emily’s father, played here with saturnine handsomeness by Oliver Jackson-Cohen. Biographical evidence points to a possible platonic tendresse between William and Emily’s younger sister, Anne, (who doesn’t register much here). But O’Connor gives Emily and William a passionate sexual affair which brings William to the brink of madness and which is to be betrayed by Branwell, involving an ingenious, if elaborate, plot complication involving a letter.
In real life, the small matter of contraception or the lack of it might have made itself felt in the case of Emily and William’s grand passion. (And incidentally, the published copy of Wuthering Heights which Emily finally holds in her hands would not have been credited to “Emily Brontë” but “Ellis Bell”, because of the patriarchal world of publishing.) But everything is presented here with conviction and Mackey and Jackson-Cohen are absolutely believable lovers; their sexuality carries the drama. You can imagine that Emily thought about it, at the very least. There is also a plausibly managed friendship between William and Branwell, and when the troubled brother goes missing and William goes looking for him, yelling “Bran … well!” across the landscape, O’Connor cleverly allows us to see how this might have inspired a famous fictional moment for Emily.
Most strikingly of all, O’Connor expresses all of the sisters’ imaginative life in the mask that Patrick did own in real life, encouraging role-play games. Emily uses it to channel the spirit of their departed, longed-for mother; it is a disturbing, séance-like scene that hints at something unearthly and occult in her creativity and perhaps all creativity. Had he lived to see it, this is a movie scene that I think Yorkshireman Ted Hughes would have loved. It is a real achievement for O’Connor.
• Emily is released on 14 October in cinemas.
• This article was amended on 12 October 2022. Emily Brontë grew up in Haworth parsonage, not Howarth, as an earlier version said.