What persuades people that these recognized works of art and literature must necessarily have an inspiration beyond the imagination of their creators? “There must be something,” Anne Brontë insists, squeezing the sweaty hand of the sister she knows is dying. Maybe it’s jealousy – in this fictionalized take on the sisters’ lives, she’s not yet an author herself – but instead it seems like she just can’t accept that Wuthering Heights was born. from the mind of someone who has never experienced romantic love. It rather belittles Emily’s talent – and yet, like that is fiction, it could equally well be read as a commentary on Anne’s needs and imagination, or on Charlotte’s efforts to redefine Emily’s life after her death.
Either way, there’s no denying that writer/director Frances O’Connor captured something of the vital spirit found in Emily’s surviving writing, and often attested to by the few people who knew her. Given her predilection for fantasy and reimagining herself, one suspects she would have sympathized with the outcome. Emma Mackey, best known for her work in the television series Sex Education, evokes a remarkable resemblance to Emily as she was painted by her brother Branwell, with that striking gaze that spoke of her unease in the world. She’s also a bigger head than the actors playing her sisters, which immediately makes her awkward, too easily the object of stares and whispers, too little able to achieve that much-desired intimacy. In a world where women were often locked up, it was Emily’s misfortune to be pushed and prodded out when she didn’t want to – except on the moors, which are captured here in their stark beauty, if not in all their savagery.
As you might have guessed, this film revolves around a romance between Emily and an uncomfortable object of desire – William, a preacher from the softer country of the south, not used to such harsh land and not from the all ready for her. Charged by his father to teach him French, he first appears as one more force destined to constrain his will, shape his mind and limit the time spent wandering or dreaming. Perhaps drawing inspiration from the Brontës’ collection of books, O’Connor portrays Branwell, barely a year his senior, as his closest confidant and also as a committed romantic, rebelling against the strict order he saw all around him through drink, drugs, lust. and imitative poetry. Emily’s mind is seen ignited by the iconoclastic ideas he presents to her, though she soon realizes he won’t. Armed with these, she searches everywhere for an adversary capable of standing up against her in the intellectual debate, and finds one in William.
The attraction of the forbidden is a powerful thing. For some people, destructive love is even more so. This film is, as you’d expect, torn apart with references to Wuthering Heights, even if it’s Emily’s fists pounding helplessly against a closed door as she shivers and demands to come in who will stay with you. Again and again, she is face to the window, observing life from a distance. O’Connor, however, has the subtlety of changing his tone without diluting the passion of it all. The first real love scene is almost comical as the lovers have to spend an inordinate amount of time removing the layers of very formal, beautifully but thoughtlessly designed clothes. Elsewhere, brief glances are enough to convey a rising tide of passion – and guilt.
Like William, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who bears a striking resemblance to the young Christopher Lee, testifies very well to the torture of a man of God carried away by words that a part of him recognizes as almost divine and that, therefore, he is obliged to perceive as a trap. He is a man who sees his own flaws too clearly even as he repeats them, trying to hide behind the privilege of his status and gender, things fragile in the face of Emily’s gritty realism and enchanted dream. . He’s a weak, selfish, flawed man like all of Emily’s characters would be, and much more interesting because of it. Although it’s easy to read her as strong in comparison, she is temperamental and, at times, seems to fall prey to her own changing moods, self-destructive when there is no one else around who can do the work for her. .
The screen adaptations of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre tended to portray the Yorkshire landscape with stunning vistas, positioning its emptiness as a landscape of possibility and freedom. O’Connor does this relatively little; for the most part we are in the valleys where the low stone houses huddle sheltered from the storms. Windows overlook grassy slopes, shortened horizons. The grass is thin; there’s dirt everywhere and endless drudgery to keep her at bay, which Emily is often busy with (as she was in life). This is not a country for tall poppies. In what could be Emily’s moment of triumph, the smallness of her father’s ambition brings everything down to his size. O’Connor doesn’t fall for the myth of a romantic place that breeds talent. Instead, she recognizes the pressure cooker effect of a tightly constrained world. Passion breaks out when there is only freedom of thought; and sometimes it falls on stony ground, and sometimes it lands on the page.
Whatever else she dreamed or did, Emily’s life was limited and short. With dazzling confidence and a vision all his own, O’Connor grants him moments of true freedom in the imagination.
Reviewed on: Nov 16, 2022