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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
‘How did you write Wuthering Heights?’ demands a rattled Charlotte Brontë (Alexandra Dowling) in the opening moments of this inventive, urgent gothic fable. ‘It’s an ugly book,’ Charlotte complains as her sister Emily (Sex Education’s Emma Mackey) swoons beside her, a three-volume edition of the offending text propped next to a medicine bottle at her elbow. When Emily replies that she simply put pen to paper, Charlotte is unassuaged, insisting that ‘there is something…’. Only later does Charlotte start to realise what that ‘something’ is.
Punctuated with fades-to-black that accentuate its fairy-tale fever-dream quality, Emily flashes back to the days when the young Brontë sisters delighted in the stories they told each other. While Charlotte is set to be a teacher, Emily romps across moorland, rolling and falling in green with her beloved Byronic brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead). Her widowed father (Adrian Dunbar) preaches judgment from the pulpit, but new curate William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) talks wistfully about communing with God while walking in the rain.
O’Connor clearly isn’t afraid of rattling cages when approaching sacred texts. There’s something refreshingly untethered about the gusto with which she reimagines Emily, tossing aside the image of a shy, sickly recluse, replacing it with an antiheroine whose inability to fit in with the ordered world is a source of strength rather than weakness. Yes, Emily, into whom Mackey breathes intensely tangible life, suffers panic attacks when away from Haworth, but are these not simply the anguished cries of one separated from her first love? And while Emily’s angsty passions may fix upon Weightman, isn’t he simply in the right place at the right time?
Abel Korzeniowski’s score ramps up the gothic romance and adds a note of thunderous horror to otherwise demure scenes of cloistered walls closing in. Elsewhere, O’Connor makes pointed use of a vacuum-like silence to portray shock and bereavement – a momentary absence of life in a film that otherwise thrums with full-blooded vivacity.