Emma Mackey was "terrified" about how Brontë fans might react to Emily
Mackey and writer-director Frances O'Connor speak exclusively to RadioTimes.com about the new film.
This weekend marks the release of Emily, the debut feature from actor-turned-director Frances O'Connor. The film sees Sex Education's Emma Mackey star as Wuthering Heights writer Emily Brontë, who famously died just a year after the publication of her sole novel.
Although loosely based on real events, the film is by no means a simple biopic of the legendary novelist, instead blending reality with myth to paint a more speculative portrait of her life before she wrote her landmark work. Understandably, this is an approach that has left O'Connor and Mackey feeling slightly apprehensive about the response from devoted Brontëites.
"I’m a little nervous," O'Connor tells RadioTimes.com during an exclusive interview ahead of the film's release.
"Terrified!" adds Mackey.
"I mean, we kind of knew what we were doing," O'Connor continues. "We knew that it'd probably be a little controversial but that if we did it well enough, and we kind of speak from our heart, that people will understand the intention."
Even if the film isn't entirely based in fact, no one could accuse either O'Connor or Mackey of not doing their research. O'Connor explains that she read just about every biography she could get her hands on before embarking on the project, while Mackey also did an extensive amount of studying, something which proved invaluable when it came to building the foundation for her performance.
"It was so fun to learn all of that stuff," Mackey explains. "I like feeding my brain with lots of facts and things, and it was such a rich world to delve into. But actually, in a way, they were quite separate things. It was great to have all of those books and those biographies, but actually when it got to the shooting of the film, the script became my main priority and so you let all of that go in a way."
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That script was penned by O'Connor herself, and in addition to incorporating aspects from true history, it is also partly inspired by Brontë's fictional work – including Wuthering Heights. One example of the way in which the film deviates from the historical record is the addition of a fictional romance between Emily and a curate named William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who in real life is believed to have actually had an affair with Anne Brontë.
Asked about this process of blending fact with fictional elements, O'Connor explains how everything essentially came back to theme.
"The theme of it really is: 'How do you find your voice when you can't see yourself reflected anywhere?'" she says. "And how do you as an artist kind of connect to who you really are when who you really are isn't really appreciated?
"So everything that happens in the film – like you take the mask, for instance, the mask was a real object the Brontë's had. And then when I was developing it, I thought that could actually be a really great symbol for Emily's creativity, it's connected to the mother, connected to the feminine. And so it became this great kind of symbol in a way for creativity."
O'Connor adds: "So that's kind of one way that I worked – I did the research, but then I didn't limit my imagination. I was never going to write a biopic about this subject, I really wanted it to fly, and be something that young people would actually go and see. Biopics in some ways are so like for a particular demographic, and I wanted this film to speak to a lot of young women."
It's certainly true that biopics – and indeed British period dramas more generally – can often have a reputation for being rather stuffy and fussy, adhering to certain formulas and not taking many risks. This was something O'Connor was desperately keen to avoid, while she also aimed to ensure the film didn't feel like "you're watching it in a picture frame".
"I wanted it to feel like we were in there with them," she says. "And we did that with the soundscapes – hearing people breathing, with the birdsong, with the wind. So it felt very immersive. Plus we did this gentle handheld thing, so you feel like we're just documenting these little moments with characters, you're actually really in the room."
This was an approach that also appealed greatly to Mackey, who says that everything felt "very fluid" and "very real" on set.
"In my head. I just wanted to kind of stomp," she laughs. "That image was so potent like I wanted to get the dress dirty. Really that was the starting point for me, I just wanted to trudge through the Moors in a dress and get everything muddy and like have hair in my face!"
"Often I think when you're in a period drama as an actor, people come up, [and say] 'Don't put anything on your dress!'" O'Connor interjects. "And we didn't want to have that on this. We wanted everyone to feel like you could do what you wanted in your clothes."
Emily is 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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