Film Review: Emily (2023)

Year: 2023

Runtime: 130 minutes

Director/Writer: Frances O’Connor

Actors: Emma Mackey, Fionn Whitehead, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Alexandra Dowling, Adrian Dunbar

By Tom Moore

The directorial debut of actress Frances O’Connor, who some might recognize from films like “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence”(2001) and “Bedazzled”(2000), acts as a great character study taking inspiration from one of the most prolific female writers of all-time.

“Emily” follows a young Emily Bronte (Emma Mackey), who’s caught between the norms for women like her of the times and a blossoming sense of freedom spurred by her rebellious brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead) and curate William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Now, those going into “Emily” expecting a straightforward biopic depicting the life events of Bronte as they happened should have their expectations tempered. Rather than be a historic retelling, the film aims to simply be inspired by Emily’s story before “Wuthering Heights” for its central narrative and shows some fictional relationships that didn’t actually happen. For some, it’ll make the film easy to criticize and feel like it’s creating a false sense of history for the iconic English writer.

Those that can look past that though will see “Emily” for what it is, an excellently acted and directed coming-of-age character study about finding inspiration as well as yourself. Emily’s personal arc is very captivating with the vulnerability she displays, and the impact of her story kind of sneaks up on you. At first, Emily is simply confined by the familial ties that bind her and attempt to force her into a certain mold. Although her love of stories is clear and she’s nearly ready to burst with creativity, her family’s desires and perceptions label her as strange, which might as well have her disowned. Emily’s older sister Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) pretty much views her as inferior because of how different she is, and her father’s (Adrian Dunbar) sense of disappointment is abundantly clear.

Even with Emily feeling constrained, her inner thoughts and feelings are clear to see mainly because of Mackey’s phenomenal performance. Mackey brings a great vulnerability to Emily that makes her easy to connect with. When you’re seeing her struggle with social anxiety and getting people to support her differences, you feel like you know where it’s all coming from. Then, as Emily becomes more involved with Branwell’s rebellious nature and a sparking romance with William, the film takes new shape that’s undoubtedly fulfilling. There’s a great scene with Branwell inspiring Emily to stand for herself and become unshackled by oppression that’s a pivotal turning point in the story.

It’s the first time that Emily truly feels free and you can’t help but be sucked into the sort of whirlwind of free thought and individuality that makes her feel strong. There’s such a harmonious sense of self-discovery with Emily’s time with Brandwell that’s incredibly engaging and kind of cathartic. Whitehead delivers one of his best performances to date and you can’t help but love seeing the subtle hints of Emily’s freer side that Mackey initially displayed be brought out in full force.

There’s even something with the sudden connection that Emily and William have that adds to her enlightenment. Although they’re at each other’s throats leading up to their eventual romance, the film really excels at making you feel why their sudden love has such a big impact on both of them. Jackson-Cohen and Mackey have great chemistry throughout, which adds to the emotion of their characters coming together, and it ultimately tugs at your heart when reality crashes down.

While there is a euphoric atmosphere to Emily having moments of self-discovery, the third act of the film sees the conflicting perspectives of the first two acts converge. This leads to Emily facing some harsh moments and having some heart-breaking woes. The performances, especially Mackey and Whitehead’s, really shine in this last act and the strengths of O’Connor’s vision shows. Although by the time you get to the final act, it feels like the pacing and runtime of the film has started to drag, it’s only because O’Connor has crafted a jam-packed narrative that builds a great look into Emily’s perspective. By the end, the impact of Emily’s personal journey feels clear and there’s some great relatability to be had in seeing having to make her choices about her life and love for writing. It’s even more satisfying to see her contemplate what writing really means to her and the impact she has on her sisters, mainly Charlotte, makes for a surprisingly emotional end.

“Emily” is a fantastic debut for O’Connor behind the camera and a great showing of the talent it features, mainly especially it’s central trio of Mackey, Whitehead, and Jackson-Cohen. It’s a coming-of-age story that’s easy to connect with and a perspective vital to thinking on the importance of freedom of thought and finding inspiration.



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