Emily Brontë (Emma Mackey) lives a relatively calm and even life with her reverend father (Adrian Dunbar) and her two sisters, the prim Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) and the carefree Anne (Amelia Gething), and her brother, the wild Branwell (Fionn Whitehead). However, when a young man (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) arrives in their lives, Emily begins an all-consuming affair with him that shakes her to her core, which serves as an inspiration for her one and only novel - 'Wuthering Heights'.
'Wuthering Heights' is synonymous with dark, swirling romance and Kate Bush's art-pop masterpiece of a song. It shouldn't come as any surprise, then, that the life and times of its author should be the same. True, it's taking some measure of poetic licence with Emily Brontë's life, but what 'Emily' does incredibly well is craft a story in which you can understand how someone would come out the other side of it and think to write something like 'Wuthering Heights'. Frances O'Connor, in her debut as both writer and director, evokes an atmosphere similar to 'Wuthering Heights', bending between twilight dreams and a swirling, mesmerising romance. The music of Abel Korzeniowski and Nanu Segal's sensuous cinematography gives strength to this, and allows for textures and ideas not previously seen in this kind of period drama.
Frances O'Connor understands key aspects of character development and makes them whole with both dialogue and camerawork. Emily is always positioned, initially at least, somewhere in the back behind Charlotte and her sister Anne. She's given a couple of fumbling lines, looks generally shocked to be spoken to by anyone, but you see inside that there's a deep well of imagination and soul that will eventually rise to the surface in time. That's also down to Emma Mackey, who gives a thundering performance in the lead role and sustains it throughout. Compared to something like Greta Gerwig's 'Little Women', 'Emily' takes the sisterly dynamic more seriously and probes it more assiduously. Emily is the middle-child, often overlooked but with a keen observation and a sensitivity to all things. Charlotte, played with preening sharpness by Alexandra Dowling, is the people-pleaser while Anne is the innocent one.
Outside of the three of these is Fionn Whitehead's character, Branwell. A garden variety screw-up, Whitehead's performance could have easily slipped into maudlin, but instead it's given a much more nuanced approach of someone who struggles with their own mediocrity and is trying so desperately to survive despite himself.
Again, Frances O'Connor's script gives space for character and context, and when the romance spins up between Emily Brontë and William Weightman, played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen, it has so much more heft to it because of this. There's a real vulnerability and an intensity to how they interact with each other, as period dramas generally tend to be quite chaste about these things. Here, it's explicit in every sense of the word. Yes, there can be subtlety and sometimes less is more, but in 'Emily', it makes sense because the passion doesn't connect unless it's explicit. This then makes the downfall and the tragedy of their doomed romance all the more potent. The wildness and the ferocity of sadness play off of it, and in the end, is processed into the making of 'Wuthering Heights'. Really, that's what 'Emily' is about - taking emotional damage and heartbreak, and channelling it into something as a way of processing it to try and get closure on it.