“How did you write Wuthering Heights?” demands a rattled Charlotte Brontë (Alexandra Dowling) in the opening moments of this inventive, urgent gothic fable that, like Andrew Dominik’s misunderstood Blonde, could hardly be mistaken for a drearily factual biopic. “It’s an ugly book,” Charlotte complains as her sister Emily (Sex Education’s Emma Mackey) swoons beside her, a three-volume edition of the offending text (“full of selfish people who only really care for themselves”) propped next to a medicine bottle at her elbow. When Emily replies that she simply put pen to paper, Charlotte is unassuaged, insisting that “there is something…”. Only later, when the literary torch is passed on and she can make peace with her own ghosts, does Charlotte start to realise what that “something” is…
Punctuated with fades-to-black that accentuate its fairytale fever-dream quality, Emily flashes back to the days when the young Brontë sisters delighted in the stories they told each other. While Charlotte is set to be a teacher, Emily (known in the village as “the strange one”) romps across moorland, caressing trees and moss, rolling and falling in green with her beloved Byronic brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead). Her widowed father (Adrian Dunbar) preaches judgment from the pulpit, but new curate William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) talks wistfully about communing with God while walking in the rain, to the eye-rolling delight of his congregation.
Popular legend has it that the real-life Weightman was romantically involved with youngest sister Anne Brontë, but British-Australian actor turned writer-director Frances O’Connor’s thrillingly confident feature debut imagines him being torn between the attraction and repulsion that Emily inspires. Emily feels the sharp cut of that dual-edged sword too, although initially she appears more smitten with her brother, who lands and then squanders a place at the Royal College of Art and has the words “Freedom of Thought” scrawled on his forearm. Drink and opium will lead Branwell off the rails, and the film’s subdued palette turns to lush, oversaturated hues when Emily first shares his pupil-dilating vices in a grassy paradise. Later, they will peer in through windows in the dead of night, fleshly precursors of Cathy and Heathcliff.
These outdoor scenes, filmed with sensuous, hand-held grit by Nanu Segal, who shot Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling, recall the passionate landscapes of Francis Lee’s awards-winner God’s Own Country. Meanwhile, the sonic juxtapositions of inner and outer worlds (plaudits to sound designer Niv Adiri) put me in mind of William Oldroyd’s north-east England psychodrama Lady Macbeth, the film that made a star of Florence Pugh.
More unexpected is the shadow that Kaneto Shindô’s Japanese chiller Onibaba casts over a startling scene in which a mask turns a parlour game into a ghostly seance. With remarkable elan, O’Connor conjures a spine-tingling vision of an unquiet maternal spirit who seems to sweep in with the wind to possess her daughter. Is Emily really speaking with the voice of Mother (Nature), or are we all simply caught in the overwhelming power of her imagination?
Having starred in Patricia Rozema’s revisionist screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, and worked emotional wonders in Spielberg’s heartbreaking sci-fi epic AI: Artificial Intelligence (one of the most ambitious retellings of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio), O’Connor clearly isn’t afraid of rattling cages when approaching sacred texts. There’s something refreshingly untethered about the gusto with which she reimagines Emily, tossing aside the image of a shy, sickly recluse, replacing it with an antiheroine whose inability to fit in with the ordered world is a source of strength rather than weakness. Yes, Emily, into whom Mackey breathes intensely tangible life, suffers panic attacks when away from Haworth, but are these not simply the anguished cries of one separated from her first love? And while Emily’s angsty passions may fix upon Weightman, isn’t he simply in the right place at the right time – a convenient piece of garden furniture amid the rugged scenery that is her heart’s true desire?
Abel Korzeniowski’s score ramps up the gothic romance and adds a note of thunderous horror to otherwise demure scenes of cloistered walls closing in. Elsewhere, O’Connor makes pointed use of a vacuum-like silence to portray shock and bereavement – a momentary absence of life in a film that otherwise thrums with full-blooded vivacity.
• Explanatory footnote added on 1 December 2022: For avoidance of doubt, ”pupil-dilating vices” accurately describes a scene close-up of Emily (as distinct from the real-world effect of opium on eyes).