Misty moors. Mysterious men. Ghostly goings-on. It’s easy to see why, for nearly 200 years, readers have been swept up in the world of Wuthering Heights, and the tale of the Brontë sisters – literary geniuses way ahead of their time, publishing ravishing, romantic gothic literature under pseudonyms at a time where women writers weren’t exactly welcomed. Now, Frances O’Connor (of A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Mansfield Park, The Conjuring 2 and more) is making her feature debut as writer-director with Emily – a historical drama that explores and extrapolates upon what (relatively little) we know about Emily Brontë, with Sex Education’s Emma Mackey playing the woman herself, digging into the impact of a work as wild and elemental as Wuthering Heights.
We sat down with O’Connor to take an early peek at the trailer – and find out what she’s cooked up with her very first film behind the camera.
Part of the appeal of the Brontës – and Emily in particular – is the mystique around them. As O’Connor explains, her fascination with the writer comes from her being somewhat of an unknowable figure. “I read their books when I was a teenager, and I particularly loved Emily and Wuthering Heights. She’s a fascinating character – she died when she was 30, she was very introverted and private, and we don’t really know much about her,” she explains. “She created this novel, this ferocious piece of literature that’s full of atmosphere and deep dark feeling, so it just makes you think – well, who was she? That was my starting point.”
Being a Brontë
The perfect person to flesh out Emily Brontë’s interior world? Emma Mackey, already a rising star for Sex Education, and about to take the world by storm in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie too. “She’s phenomenal,” says O’Connor. “She was one of the first people that auditioned, and there was a lot of talk about finding an ‘established film name’, but she really blew me away in the room. She’s very bright, she’s got a really great emotional intelligence, and she’s got a ferocity to her too.” All that, and she’s a massive Emily Brontë fan. “She loves Emily Brontë the same way that I do,” O’Connor says. “She went to university in Leeds, she’s always loved Wuthering Heights, and she spent a lot of time there going for walks [in Yorkshire]. She actually said independently, before she even heard of my film, ‘I’d love to play Emily Brontë at some time’.” It was meant to be.
A man’s world
Part of the shock of Wuthering Heights at the time was the fact that such a wild, raw piece of literature was penned by a woman – with 19th Century gender roles and expectations being particularly rigid. The Invisible Man’s Oliver Jackson-Cohen plays William Weightman, a factual figure both in thrall to and confounded by Emily’s literary prowess. “He was a real curate that lived with the Brontës, and he turned up and everyone fell in love with him,” O’Connor explains. “He was a bit of a flirt, and they named him ‘Celia Amelia’ because he was like a girl in a ribbon shop – he could never decide which girl he liked. In my story, I create a narrative where he represents the masculine, and Emily’s the wild feminine, these opposites.”
Fact and fiction
In imagining what Emily’s life would have been like, O’Connor not only soaked up all the information that exists about the author (“I read everything that had been written about her, some amazing biographies”) but blended it with the evocative environments and thematic elements that come through so strongly in Wuthering Heights. “I did it sometimes in a conscious way, sometimes in an unconscious way,” she says. “I was reading the novel constantly, and then letting my imagination take off. There are things that are literally in Wuthering Heights, and others that are a little bit more esoteric. There’s the normal world – the domestic world of Haworth where they lived – and then there’s the Wuthering Heights world in the film, and they kind of intermix. We create this sense of reality, and then have the atmosphere of Wuthering Heights on top of that.”
If most of the focus in the Brontë family legacy is on Emily, Charlotte and Anne, their brother Branwell was also an artist – a painter and poet. He’s played here by Dunkirk star Fionn Whitehead, positioned as an encouraging voice to Emily who supports her in her creative output. “Branwell was the golden boy of the family, who then fell from grace,” teases O’Connor. “The sisters kind of came up behind him. He’s a very tragic figure, but he sees Emily in a way that nobody else does, and he helps her find her truth.”
In the trailer, Emily and Branwell are seen on the moors, yelling ‘FREEDOM IN THOUGHT’ into the wind – a phrase not drawn directly from the Brontës’ work, but written in the spirit of their creativity. “The inspiration for that is really from Wuthering Heights,” says O’Connor, “because those characters are rebels and do what they want. They’re kind of like children in a way. Unlike a lot of women at the time, Emily did have a sense of her own thoughts, and forming her own thoughts and beliefs, and being okay with them being different than other people’s.” It’s a notion that’s key to the movie. “That’s really the heart of what I’m trying to say – it’s so important to find your own voice as a young woman, and to believe in yourself.”
The scenic route
If there’s one thing you can’t substitute in a movie about the Brontë family, it’s the rolling Yorkshire hills – so, O’Connor took the production there to shoot Emily. And for the most part, the weather co-operated. “There were some terrible days where we’d been soaked in Yorkshire rain all day, and now it’s three in the morning and we’re doing a running sequence,” she laughs. “But we were quite blessed weather-wise. We had rain when we needed it, and sunshine.” And while they couldn’t shoot in the Brontës’ house (“It’s an operational museum, so nobody is able to film there”), they did get close. “We shot in this beautiful old Georgian house in Dent, which we found out afterwards was an inspiration for Emily to write Wuthering Heights,” she says. “There was a rumour that a slave had died in that house. It was owned by a rum company, and Heathcliff was based on those servants that lived in that house.”
For all the imagination and invention at play in O’Connor’s telling, Emily looks set to be an authentic Brontë tale through-and-through. “Walking on the street and seeing Emma walk out of the apothecary which the real Emily would have walked out of, we were all saying how amazing that was,” the filmmaker recalls. The journey back to a literary icon begins here.
Emily comes to UK cinemas from 14 October.