High drama

• Director Frances O’Connor and actress Emma Mackey on the Yorkshire Moors during the making of Emily.

DIRECTOR Frances O’Connor knew she had created a moving film about Emily Brontë when The Brontë Society were moved to tears during a private screening in England.

“They all absolutely loved it and thought it really captured the essence of Emily,” O’Connor says.

The former Mercedes College girl has come a long way since her days growing up in Perth, going on to star in several Hollywood films including Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence in 2001.

Now 55, the actress is moving behind the camera, making her directorial debut with Emily, which she also wrote.

The film is an account of Emily Brontë’s short but eventful life in rural Yorkshire in the early 1800s, revealing all the tumultuous family and romantic events that may have inspired her to write the literary classic Wuthering Heights, released a year before her death, aged 30, in 1848. 

“I’ve always loved Wuthering Heights and read it when I was a teenager,” O’Connor says.

“I guess I was really interested in exploring female voice and what it is to be a young woman at that particular point in history.

“I felt there was a story to tell about that through Emily – how can you be authentic to yourself, if who you are is different as a woman?”

Emily (Emma Mackey) is portrayed as a shy, socially-awkward woman with a steely core, losing herself in fantasy stories as a child.

As a young woman she doesn’t fit in at school and returns home where she is taught French by local curate William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen).

Initially they hate each other – maybe it’s sexual tension – but eventually they get jiggy with it in a derelict cottage on the wind-swept Yorkshire moors and embark on a secret passionate romance, only for Weightman to abruptly call it off, fearing Emily is the devil’s work and he has committed a sacrilegious act.

A heart-broken Emily goes with her sister to Belgium to get away from it all, not knowing that her bitter, alcoholic brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead) deliberately didn’t pass on a note from Weightman saying he made a mistake and wanted her back.

This is all set against the backdrop of illness, death and family tension – her sister Charlotte, who went on to write Jane Eyre, wants Emily to be more conventional and morally upright, while her brother is an opium-addled, failed artist leading Emily on an experimental, libertine path.

Emily is a subtle mix of old and new – it’s deliberately paced and there’s no Baz Luhrmann-style razzmatazz to convert a younger audience to an older story, but there’s a dark gothic air to the movie and little touches of modernism here and there.

This mix of old and new is really evident in the classical score by Abel Korzeniowski, which complements the breathtaking panoramas of the bleak Yorkshire moors, especially in the scene where the sisters are running through the pouring rain in slow motion.

O’Connor does a fine job on her directorial debut, creating a character-driven piece with the odd cinematic flourish – an eerie scene with a sinister mask is very well constructed – and the tone is consistent throughout.

O’Connor admits being a director was all-consuming.

“It was everything really – magical, stressful, joyous, emotional,” she says.

“The actors all kept saying ‘You’re so emotional behind the camera’. I joked, ‘I won’t be on my next one!’.”

Mackey (Sex Education, Death on the Nile) really anchors the film, giving an utterly convincing performance as Emily – combining a simmering sexuality with a sort of repressed sadness. 

The film is a slow burn with some fine performances and really gets going when the love affair kicks in.

It’s a mix of fact and fiction, combining what we know about Emily’s short dramatic life with O’Connor’s love of Wuthering Heights in a sort of meta-fictional soup.

“I’m combining Wuthering Heights with Emily’s life and things from my own life,” O’Connor says.

“There’s a triangle between Branwell, Weightman and Emily in the film, in the same way Wuthering Heights had Heathcliff, Edgar and Cathy. So it’s kind of emulating that in a way.”

There will be a special screening of Emily with a Q&A with O’Connor at Luna Leederville tonight (Saturday December 17) and the film is on general release from January 12. For details see lunapalace.com.au.

by STEPHEN POLLOCK

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