In Emily, Emily Brontë Gets To Be A Real Girl
Director Frances O’Connor breaks Emily Brontë out of the period piece.
Twenty minutes into Emily, the new film about Emily Brontë that isn’t so much a biopic, but a character study told in birdsong soundscape, lingering glances, and unadulterated angst – there is a seance of sorts.
In the scene, Emily, played by Sex Education’s Emma Mackey, her siblings, and William Weightman, the priest she’s crushing on, are horsing around with a white Phantom of the Opera-style mask. They’re each trying it on, pretending to be the ghosts of the dead. But instead of conjuring, say, Marie Antoinette, Emily becomes the ghost of the Brontës’ dead mother. The window bursts open with a gust of wind; papers are flying; everyone is crying. It’s a moment of pristine gothic horror, where the supernatural and reality are suspended, when it’s become clear that we’re no longer watching a biopic, but something that exists between time and space. Emily is more a story told in emotional coordinates, a biography not so much of a person, but of a psychological state.
“If you still feel like you are watching a biopic at that point, I mean, I really feel like that's on you,” director Frances O’Connor tells NYLON of the scene. “I'm coming into the story with such respect for Emily and so much love for her, and I know when I break the rules and I know why I'm breaking the rules. I'm doing the film to speak to people in your generation.”
The film follows Emily’s life in the years prior to and while writing Wuthering Heights, up until her death at age 30, but O'Connor's rendering of the author isn’t precious. Despite historically accurate costuming, Emily is not a sleepy period piece, nor is it hyper-modernized takes on the Victoria era that are fashionable now (there are no string quartets playing Billie Eilish songs.) This Emily Brontë has bodice-ripping sex in barns; she takes opium in the rolling Yorkshire hills with her brother; she has a life.
Emily’s problems, and more importantly, her angst and her artistic struggle are timeless: The man she loves ghosts her; her brother is a drug addict; her sister is kind of an asshole; everyone thinks she’s a loser. She's in a culture that doesn’t want her to make anything – and yet, she has a boundless capacity for love, joy, and creativity.
Brontë purists, of course, are taking issue with O’Connor’s creative liberties (how could Emily possibly have – gasp – hot sex?), but for historical accuracy can take a backseat when it comes to timeless human conditions. NYLON spoke with O’Connor over Zoom about the haters, why she didn’t try to modernize Emily, and most importantly, why her story is so timeless.
Emily is now playing in theaters.
Where did this film start for you? Did you always want to make an Emily Bronte film?
I've been wanting to write and direct for a while and I've been working on the script for a while. I knew for my first thing I wanted it to be about Emily because I felt like I've always located in her a sense of being authentic and being true to who I am, even if what that is feels different. I think we all feel that we're different, ultimately. I just think she's also a really beautiful kind of role model for people in terms of being yourself. The other thing is I've always just wondered who she was as a person. She's quite a mysterious figure, so spending time with her on film was a great way of thinking about her and getting to know her a bit better. Even though, ultimately, I felt after the film, I still feel I don't really know her, but that's all right. She's elusive.
That's part of the beauty. Part of the intrigue with historical figures is that we are never going to know and all we have are our own interpretations, whether that's how we feel when we read their work or watching films like this.
I wanted the feeling I had when I read the book to be in the film: that kind of feeling of longing, violent feelings, feelings of love, and the wind and the rain. All of that is important as well.
There have been so many films made already about the Brontës, how did you want to make yours different?
I decided I was going to do all the research. I read a lot of different kinds of sources and then just let my imagination take all that information and let it kind of roam and find a story, which is kind of how this narrative formed about a young woman who feels different. Walking through life is hard for her and how she decides she's going to get out there and live so that she can be a writer and who she really is meant to be.
All the things that are in the film are things that I found through research, but so that it would flow into this narrative. For example, the mask is a real object that the Brontës had in their house that was given to the mother and father on their wedding night, and they never found out who it came from. The father did make the children put it on and speak through it, and I thought, “What a great kind of symbol for Emily's creativity and the fact that they're all kind of wearing masks in a way.” Also, it was this kind of object that's connected to the mother that they all lost, so it worked like that.
I also will say that with so many period pieces now, it's very fashionable to modernize them, and I really appreciated that I didn't hear a Billie Eilish song in this movie.
I feel like it's almost kind of had its run, that kind of thing. For me, it was important to just forget that it's a period film. It's a story that's set in a period about this woman. It's also got to feel very authentic and have a kind of documented feel to it. All the music is, in a way, period appropriate, but not quite. And the costumes are 100% accurate for every year that the film happens in. There's no real makeup, so it all looks really real.
That just helps the audience believe that what they're watching is real, so the audience feels really immersed in the world. You know also, with the soundscapes that we create with the bird song or the wind or the rain, so that you really feel like you've been in there with her. And her breath, the breath of the character is really important. It feels organic and real and not poppy. We don't do anything like crane shots or drone shots because I feel like that makes it feel artificial and you're really aware of the camera work in it, which I didn't want to have.
It's a very ordinary human story. She has so much tragedy. She loses her brother and her first love, everyone thinks she's a freak, and she has all this capacity for joy and creativity. Period piece or not, that's kind of timeless, ordinary stuff.
People really weren't that different back then, especially up somewhere like Yorkshire. It was pretty real up there. I didn't want it to be so dark that it's a turnoff. I wanted you to still really be in there with her and rooting for her because you love her. You love who she is, even if it's a bit quirky.
Some reviews have been talking about how creative liberties were taken. If you can't already tell, I'm not a Brontë purist. I didn't even know any of that, but also wouldn't have cared. But what is that about? Are people just being protective?
I think some people don't like that she's not a virgin. They want to keep her in a glass case. They don't want her to go out and have a good time. I really have loved reading some of the reviews that have been like, "How dare you?" because to have such an extreme reaction means that it affected them and it means that they've maybe got their own relationship with Emily Brontë and they've placed her up on a shelf where they feel that she should stay.
There's a mask scene in the first 20 minutes where a dead mother comes to visit, or in imagination does, but if you still feel like you are watching a biopic at that point, I really feel like that's on you. This is a film that's exploring the idea of Emily. Scenes from Wuthering Heights are in the film and her poetry are in the film. There's a love triangle in the film, there's a love triangle in Wuthering Heights. It’s a mix of different things. In the same way that Emily wrote what she felt, that's what I wanted to do. I've got to say, it fills me full of delight to be honest. I'm coming into the story with such respect for Emily and so much love for her, and I know when I break the rules, and I know why I'm breaking the rules.
I'm doing the film to speak to people in your generation. If you like the film and you respond to it and it ties into your life and who you are in the middle of working out who you are, then I'm so happy – and that's what art should do, that's what film should do. To just watch a character through a glass case, what's the point? What's interesting is Emily kept all her reviews in her desk and there were lots of people who'd written kind of “how dare you?” reviews. She got them out and read them every now and then to kind of have a laugh, so I feel like she'd probably feel the same way as me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.