“Emily Brontë is fierce, rebellious, sensitive, creative, and magical,” says writer-director Frances O’Connor, who makes her directorial debut with Emily from her own original screenplay, a project she has been developing the past decade. “I think she’s the most neglected sister. There’s a core group of hardcore fans who love Emily because she’s a bit of a rebel and a misfit and she’d probably be a goth or something these days, I think.”
“I’ve always loved the Brontë’s”, says Frances O’Connor, an Australian-English actress living in London. “I’ve always loved ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Jane Eyre’ particularly. When I was doing my first international film, (starring in Jane Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park’), after we wrapped, I took the opportunity to go up to Yorkshire for the first time and visit Haworth and it was so evocative. I walked out on the moors and thought ‘Oh, I’d love to write something one day’ and then I just forgot about it for ages and followed my path as an actress. Eventually, I really wanted to start telling my own stories, so I went back to the idea of this.”
“There were certain things in Emily’s life that I identified with in mine,” says O’Connor, “Certain things that I think thematically are part of ‘Wuthering Heights’ and her life that I also relate to, and I think a lot of women would relate to, so the idea came from that.”
Emily tells the imagined life of one of the world’s most famous authors, Emily Brontë. The film stars
Emma Mackey (Sex Education, Death on the Nile) as Emily, a rebel and misfit, as she finds her voice
and writes the literary classic ‘Wuthering Heights’. EMILY explores the relationships that inspired her
– her raw, passionate sisterhood with Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling – The Musketeers) and Anne
(Amelia Gething – The Spanish Princess); her first aching, forbidden love for Weightman (Oliver
Jackson-Cohen – The Lost Daughter, The Haunting of Bly Manor) and her care for her maverick
brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead – The Duke, Dunkirk), whom she idolises.
Crafting the Screenplay for Emily
In writing the script for Emily, O’Connor has blended historical accuracy about the Brontë’s lives with Emily Brontë’s imagined world, so the story becomes “half her life, half ‘Wuthering Heights’ – and a little bit of things from my life,” she says. “I could’ve told a story that was a straight biography, but I felt like that’s been done. I was more interested in finding a way to celebrate who Emily is, that’s connected to ‘Wuthering Heights’ and is more strongly narrative in a way that is a little like a fairytale.”
Bringing Emily Brontë to life on screen is Emma Mackey (Sex Education, Death on the Nile) who notes that, “Emily was intuitive, inquisitive, observant, imaginative, bold, creative, and quietly intelligent”.
“What struck me about this script”, notes producer Piers Tempest, “Is that it really imagined and captured the spirit and the essence of how Emily could’ve been, because it was such a surprise that a book of such intensity and passion (‘Wuthering Heights’) was written by her.” Tempest read the script for Emily in September 2019 on the plane home from the Toronto Film Festival and was instantly impressed with the world Frances O’Connor had created. “Emily is such an interesting character, there must have been so much going on in her mind and I think Frances has brilliantly and expertly woven the facts that we know about Emily and the Brontë’s, with her imagined process and inspirations for writing the book.”
Emily begins with a newcomer arriving in Haworth, clergyman William Weightman (who incidentally was a real person and is played here by Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who not only immediately disrupts proceedings but causes emotional ripples that gather momentum as the story unfolds. He brings with him this “very exciting, quite modern energy” says Jackson-Cohen of Weightman. “The way he approaches sermons is different to how it’s been done in the past, and there hasn’t been a young clergyman in the parish for a very long time. He comes into Haworth and changes the dynamic there entirely.” This is especially true when it comes to the Brontë sisters, who seem enraptured – though not Emily, initially. “She sees through his bullshit,” smiles Jackson-Cohen. But the ground shifts again when Weightman is tasked with giving Emily French lessons. “There’s this incredible tension (between Weightman and Emily) that Frances plays with,” he explains, “that eventually blossoms into a relationship, ultimately at great cost to both of them.”
“More broadly Emily is about a woman, a coming-of-age story”, says Alexandra Dowling who plays Charlotte Brontë. “It’s about a woman finding herself and her authentic voice and power in the world.”
The way the film humanises the Brontës so well and shows their faults was a strong draw for Fionn Whitehead, who plays Branwell Brontë. “It’s unflinching in their portrayals and it’s based in fact, but also partly fiction and that gives it a lot of room to play with different things and craft these engaging stories about these people’s lives,” he suggests.
“I knew about the Brontës of course, I’d read ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Jane Eyre’ years ago,” says Emma Mackey, who plays the eponymous lead, “but I didn’t know that much about Emily. She is almost the lesser known of the three, because she wasn’t very public and there’s not an awful lot of information about her, so people like to conjure up and fabricate and imagine the life that she might have had. This film is a version of that, from Frances’s mind.”
“Often, these tellings of Emily Brontë and the sisters’ lives are just about the books that they’ve written,” says Amelia Gething, who plays Anne Brontë. “This film is showing their actual, day to day lives and obviously it’s an imagined life, because we don’t know exactly what they went through and what they did, but it covers their life at the parsonage and what they did on the moors – it shows that they can just be fun and silly too, instead of only being seen as serious writers.”
“There is inevitably pressure when you’re playing a person who existed,” adds Emma Mackey, “but as it’s not a completely factual biopic or a biography of Emily Brontë, it’s a story, so the pressure is taken off in that regard.”
Blending the real and the imagined of Emily Brontë’s life has precedent; when she died, her sister Charlotte famously retold Emily’s life as seen through her own perspective. “I think Charlotte did actually re-write her (Emily’s) narrative when she was alive and when she (Emily) was dead,” explains Frances O’Connor, “and I just wanted to make a film that re-dressed the balance and really put Emily at the middle of it, looking at who she was in a way that was very full and celebratory.”
As the actor playing Charlotte Brontë, Alexandra Dowling says she was intrigued by “the idea of Charlotte being controlling; she (Charlotte) definitely re-edited a lot of Emily’s letters after she died. There’s still a lot of mystery around the relationship but I think Frances’s script really held the complexity of that sibling rivalry and mistrust but also the deep love, adoration and affection they had, too.”
“The Brontë family are shrouded in mystery!” continues Emma Mackey, “They’re sort of the untouchable sisters, especially Emily. She’s called ‘the Sphinx of English literature’, this mysterious figure, and what I do like is that we’re fleshing her out and giving her a character, a personality and a voice and making her a living, breathing woman, as opposed to this figure from history.”
Aside from taking on the mantle of the Brontë legacy with her script, Frances O’Connor wanted to be the one to visualise her story, by directing Emily as well. Turns out timing can be everything.
“I knew I wanted to write, and I’ve always wanted to try directing,” says O’Connor, “In the last five years, I’ve felt this yearning to expand beyond being an actor and tell my whole story. It coincided with my asking if I could direct it and the producers were into it. It also coincided with the #MeToo movement happening and a lot of women getting the opportunity to have their voices heard, whereas maybe five years ago I wouldn’t have had that opportunity.”
“You have to let the actors have freedom but you also have to guide them”, says O’Connor of developing her directing style. “I found it was really helpful being an actor as well as a director, because you understand very deeply what it’s like to be inside the process, so there are moments where you let your actors have space to be in the moment and there are times where you come in and help steer it. I felt like I learned a lot during the process of directing – at times I thought I’d just let them go and see what happened. Sometimes, I’d have the thought ‘oh it’d be nice if the actor did this’ and then they would do it on the next take; I just needed to give them time to get there, so it was a really interesting process.”
As for the logistics of filming amidst Coronavirus, producer Piers Tempest says the whole cast and crew found their way. “The pandemic of 2020 / 2021 has affected all films, it’s changed the way we work and the systems in place, and it’s really had an impact on the creative process. Luckily with Emily, a lot of the film takes place outside, which is good and we were filming in quite remote locations, so that takes the risk down a little bit when shooting during Coronavirus. This is actually the fourth film that I’ve made during the pandemic, so we know what we’re doing now in terms of our testing processes. It’s really about trying to give as much creative freedom to the director as possible, whilst keeping everyone safe and following the guidelines.”
The second youngest of the Brontë children, Emily was born in 1818, and lived with her family at Haworth in Yorkshire, with the moors on their doorstep. The family suffered a great tragedy with the death of Emily’s mother in 1821, followed by the deaths of the two eldest Brontë siblings, Maria and Elizabeth in 1825, who both died from tuberculosis after becoming ill while away at boarding school in Wakefield. Maria lived to be just 11 years old and Elizabeth was 10 years-old when she died.
Charlotte and brother Branwell, along with Anne (the youngest in the family) would all join Emily as writers, having all created stories practically as soon as they learned to read. The surviving three
Brontë sisters would all publish their first novels in the same year, 1847; Charlotte with ‘Jane Eyre’,
Emily with ‘Wuthering Heights’, and Anne with ‘Agnes Grey’.
WRITER/DIRECTOR – FRANCES O’CONNOR
EMILY is the directorial debut for Frances O’Connor. She is an Australian-English actress living in London who is best known for her roles of ‘Fanny Price’ & ‘Gwendolen Fairfax’ in the films MANSFIELD PARK alongside Hugh Bonneville and Harold Pinter, & THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST alongside Judi Dench & Colin Firth and the TV series’, Madame Bovary and The Missing.
Her performance in both shows earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress.
Following her critically acclaimed film debut in Emma-Kate Croghan’s LOVE & OTHER CATASTROPHES
and award-winning performance in Bill Bennett’s KISS OR KILL, O’Connor’s film credits include THANK GOD HE MET LIZZIE alongside Cate Blanchett, Harold Ramis’s BEDAZZLED and the leading role of ‘Monica Swinton’ in Steven SPIELBERG’S A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE.
Further film credits include her AACTA award-winning performance in Ana Kokinnos’s BLESSED, THE
HUNTER opposite Willem Defoe, and WINDTALKERS opposite Nicolas Cage, and James Wan’s THE
O’Connor will next be seen in the upcoming ten-part Sky Drama The End created by Samantha
Strauss alongside Harriet Walter. Her TV credits also include ITV’s Mr Selfridge, Troy: Fall of A City for
BBC, Cleverman for ABC and Sundance, Iron Jawed Angels opposite Hillary Swank for HBO. Her work
on stage includes the West End production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Brendan Fraser, Ned Beaty,
by Tennesse Williams, Tom and Viv at the Almeida theatre by Michael Hastings and the West End
production of Florian Zeller’s The Truth.