A star rating of 3 out of 5.

While there have been many screen adaptations of Wuthering Heights, its author Emily Brontë has somewhat been underserved by cinema. Perhaps it’s because she comes as one of three, with sisters Anne and Charlotte also famed for writing some of the most indelible books in English literature. Or simply that Wuthering Heights is such a landmark novel, it has overpowered its creator, who died aged 30, with just a handful of poems and this one novel to her name.

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Actress Frances O’Connor tries to correct that, swinging the spotlight on Emily Brontë in this, her first film as writer-director. Though set in the early 19th century, it’s not a biographical portrait of Emily or the other Brontë sisters, although we do join them in Haworth, Yorkshire, near the moors that so inspired Wuthering Heights’ wild romance between the iconic figures of Cathy and Heathcliff. Rather, it’s a film that mixes reality with myth, as O’Connor tries to join the dots between Emily’s life and her sole novel.

Playing Emily is Emma Mackey, famed for her role as the moody Maeve in Sex Education, and here firing brooding looks at all who cross her path. According to the bespectacled Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling), Emily is “the strange one” of the family, and O’Connor paints an intriguing picture of sisters who dislike each other. True to history, Anne – played by Amelia Gething – doesn’t get much of a look-in. The rebellious Emily gets on better with Branwell (Fionn Whitehead), their brother. A troublemaker who has a problem with alcohol and opium, he is very much the black sheep of the Brontë family.

Running the Parish church, her father (Adrian Dunbar) is a stern disciplinarian, but Emily is given a shot at love when she meets his new assistant, Mr Weightman (Olivier Jackson-Cohen), who also tutors her in French. After being caught in the rain – apt, as his first sermon talks about this very form of weather – the two share a kiss. But Weightman is weighed down by the thought of committing a mortal sin. Emily, of course, thinks otherwise, buying into what Branwell says: “There is only one true happiness in life – to love and be loved."

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The purists will surely balk at this depiction when it was Anne who supposedly had the relationship with the real Weightman. Still, for O’Connor’s purposes, he makes for an able surrogate Heathcliff, with enough bodice ripping to satisfy those looking to get hot under the collar. Coupled with the sweeping shots of the moors, there’s something raw about O’Connor’s approach, albeit it’s not quite as dark as Andrea Arnold’s gloomy 2011 version of Wuthering Heights.

Having acted in the past in corset dramas, including 1999’s Jane Austen adaptation Mansfield Park, O’Connor clearly has a vision and she doggedly sticks to it. Arguably, Emily is a little too dour, a little too melodramatic, and the pacing sometimes drags. Mackey is also rather constrained by her role, which feels a little one-note: the glowering middle sister, who writes a “base” book “full of selfish people”, as Charlotte dubs it.

Where the film scores is Emily’s testy relationship with Charlotte, especially in one scene where they converse bitterly in French with each other at the dinner table, in front of their father, blithely unaware of the comments they’re exchanging. Scored with suitably operatic tones by Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski, there’s little room for humour here. Although after the moment Charlotte bursts into tears, a copy of Emily’s book in her hand, Anne wryly comments: “Oh, you finished it then?” A few more lines like that, to break the film’s dark clouds, would not have gone amiss.

Emily will be released in UK cinemas on Friday 14th October 2022. Check out more of our Film coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what's on tonight.

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