Toronto 2022 Review: Emily
Making the transition from in front of the camera to behind it, actor Frances O’Connor (shout-out to the TIFF moderator who noted her role in not only Steven Spielberg’s A.I. but John Woo’s undersung Windtalkers) delivers an auspicious and exhilarating debut as she crafts an impressionistic biography of author Emily Brontë. Emily mostly eschews the recent tendency of 19th century period pieces to infuse the proceedings with a winking, overly modern flair, instead taking its cues from the likes of Jane Campion’s Bright Star and Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility to find a more naturalistic breed of humor.
And despite the ultimate tragedy of Brontë’s life, there’s plenty of humor to be found in O’Connor’s script, whose lines are delivered impeccably by the likes of young stars Emma Mackey, Fionn Whitehead, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen. Mackey (most likely known to viewers of television’s Sex Education) in particular shines in the title role, imbuing Brontë with verve, passion, and oddball energy that eventually reveals itself as genius. Frequently asked to hold the frame via close-up, her expressiveness and piercing intensity mirror and enhance the film’s volatile nature. O’Connor and editor Sam Sneade bounce from scene to scene with increasing vigor, utilizing a variety of fades and jump cuts to find an ultimately singular rhythm for Brontë’s ultimately singular presence.
Perhaps most surprising (and welcome) are the ways in which O’Connor seems willing to play with both facts and genre, understanding that Brontë’s staying power stems from her tremendous gift for storytelling. Yes, Emily includes all the aspects you might expect — family drama, romance (making for one of the most ecstatic and heartbreaking sections of the film), and period repression — but most thrilling is the slight hint of the supernatural peeking around the edges. From the film’s most thrilling scene (a game of playacting and possible possession) to the sense from those around her that Brontë’s writing talents have been bestowed on her by either god or something even more unknowable, O’Connor and her cast lean into the mystery of creative genius like few works in recent memory.
I’m not a Brontë expert by any means, and I imagine some may quibble with any liberties that may have been taken with the details of her all-too-brief life. But as with the best biopics, the accuracies of the what matter far less than a cohesive and incisive portrayal of the who, and on that front Emily succeeds remarkably. One walks away with a feeling of understanding of one possible set of circumstances, of how a young woman born into an era of extreme patriarchal domination could have used her preternatural gifts to keep herself afloat. The film strikes the impressive balance of being both about Brontë (or, a version of her) and about the idea of Brontë, and proves to be a story well worth telling.