Emily (2022)


This fictionalized account of Emily Brontë’s life is pretty to look at, but rather slow and dull and suffers from a lack of imagination. It believes, as many movies do, that a woman cannot write a great love story without having been in one, because writers never make up things out of their own imagination.


It’s time for Charlotte Brontë (Alexandra Dowling) to come home from her prim and proper boarding school, and her younger sisters Emily (Emma Mackey) and Anne (Amelia Gething) are beyond excited. The three of them used to entertain each other with all manner of daring stories and challenge each other to write poetry. But Charlotte comes home changed; she has “put aside childish things” and no longer writes, something her sister Emily is aghast over, since for her, it would be impossible not to write. She has so many chapters and characters in her head, she devotes much of her time to unraveling their lives in her imagination.


Because of this, the locals find her “strange” and even accuse her of being unnatural, due to her unsociable nature. And when her father employs a young curate named William (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), he quickly finds out Emily has a voice of her own, when she challenges him in his beliefs (why should she just believe in God?). The two are often quarreling and picking at each other, which leads to a secret romance between them that cannot end well. Because, well, everyone knows Emily Brontë never married...


My thoughts about this movie are divided. On the one hand, it’s beautifully filmed and well-acted. The costumes are very accurate to the period, down to the dowdy bonnets. But there’s two problems here, one being historical inaccuracies and the other being the insensibility of the script. In other words, it makes no sense. To talk about this, I need to address some spoilers. William feels drawn to Emily, but for some reason, doesn't ask her father's permission to court her, nor is an explanation as to why it would not be allowed ever offered. They wind up fornicating regularly, before, when her sister Charlotte comes home, he dumps her for no reason whatsoever, and becomes pious about it, breaking her heart in the process. He tells her if she does not leave him alone, he shall tell his father about the affair. Now, in the first place, William is written as a moralistic, judgmental character who does not approve of Emily’s brother kissing a married woman, so it’s inconsistent for him not only to ‘fall into sin’ but to intentionally leap into it. They don’t ‘accidentally’ have sex one fine afternoon; he invites her to a remote cottage for that specific reason, and they spend a long time undressing each other. Then they sleep together all summer long when he’s supposed to be tutoring her in French. Then, the script gives us no explanation for him abruptly dumping her; are we to assume that looking at Charlotte, who gave him a miserable look after Emily was rude to her one afternoon, gave him a twinge of conscience? If so, why? Why did he not have an attack of conscience sooner? And why would he threaten to tell her father, when it would have ruined his life as well? He would have been forced to marry Anne and/or forced to leave the parish. His reputation as a clergyman would have been ruined, and no one would have hired him again. None of this is thought about or considered within the structure of the plot. It just needed her to fall in love, have sex, and then get dumped.


The film wants us to take a modern view, that of course, people have always had sex whenever they pleased; when in fact, the threat of being ostracized, shame and potential pregnancy deterred many young women from doing just that. It wants us to think that because Emily questions God’s existence, and speaks her mind, and wrote Wuthering Heights, she therefore has a modern view of sex. She didn’t. The risk of getting pregnant, having a child out of wedlock, and being disgraced would be too great, even if she had no moral objections to it. There's also a problem of being told more than shown things. Emily hears repeatedly from other people that she is strange and unnatural, but aside from one incident with a mask, never does anything remotely sinister or strange. We hear that others fear for her soul, but why? The movie reads us none of her poetry. Shows her doing nothing abnormal. She's just a bit introverted and scowls a lot. This doesn't make her unique or interesting. It should have shown us her saying weird, obscure, or disturbing things, but it didn't.


Beyond that, the message is writers cannot write about things they have never experienced; Emily wrote such deep, passionate poems (not to mention her novel) that surely, she cannot have lived and died a virgin. And I frankly hate that, because a good author or poet has an imagination and passionate feelings, whether or not they ever fall in love or have sex. As one fellow reviewer put it, Wuthering Heights is the kind of novel that is obviously written by someone who has never been in love, because it’s so fanciful and “wild.” It’s not realistic, which is why it’s so fascinating. It’s the product of someone brimming with passion and sexuality, with no “approved” outlet for it, inside the prim constraints of her society. The movie missed its opportunity to be truly exciting; it could have shown us the Brontë sisters as veracious readers (no one reads any books in this movie), as avid storytellers (only Emily writes anything here), and as girls with enormous imaginations. We could have seen flashes from her imagination and her stories, heard a lot more of her poetry. It could have been a movie about a girl who loves to write so much, even after her sister calls it “childish,” she stays up half the night meeting her characters in the solitude of her own room.


I loved one scene, where Emily either mimics her dead mother while wearing a mask, or is possessed by her ghost; there was the excitement the rest of the film lacked, the sorrow of an absent mother, the creepiness of not knowing what was happening. Instead, we get a bunch of deeply unlikable characters without a redeeming value among them (Emily is biting and cruel, William is a hypocrite, their brother is pathetic, and Charlotte is an untalented priss who instead of praising her sister’s novel, cries out “I hate you!” after reading it, and later calls it “filth”). Historically speaking, all three girls wrote and published their novels together. Jane Eyre came before Emily’s death, not after it. Fearful of their reputations and criticisms, the girls all published under male pen names (so there was no grand celebration of their novels at home; Emily’s father did not even know she had written one until after her death). It was Charlotte who pushed Emily to print her poems. And, of course, none of them had a romance with William, though he may have preferred Anne. Because a writer doesn’t need to live through something to write about it; that’s why they have “imaginations.” .
Sexual Content:
One extended scene of undressing and clothed sex that is tasteful (mostly kissing and touching); followed by a montage of other sexual encounters that are more graphic (including breast nudity and thrusting).
Emily puts on a mask at a party and conducts what seems to be a séance; it's a game in which the characters all wait for someone to "come to them" and then give clues about their identity. She either mimics their dead mother or is being channeled by her until the wind blows the curtains open and scares them all. There's drinking and use of opium by several characters.

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