Haunting, enigmatic and heartbreaking are only a few of the words that can begin to describe Emma Mackey’s performance in her newest film, Emily. Mackey steps into the role of Emily Brontë, the famed but mysterious author behind Wuthering Heights, in the Frances O’Connor-directed film, which is a gothic portrayal of Brontë and her family, captured with a soaring score and beautiful cinematography that give an earthy feel to the period piece loosely based around the writer’s life.
The movie premiered at TIFF on September 9, and it’s worlds away from Sex Education, the charming, humourous series Mackey is best known for. In Emily, she dives into a much darker sphere, showing off the colourful (and at times, chaotic) workings of Brontë’s mind and her passion. It’s a story about not simply who the woman is behind Wuthering Heights, but the how and the why — it’s a portrait of the many tensions and relationships that shaped her.
As Mackey sits in front of me, cheerfully sipping on water as we chat, you can easily sense her passion for literature and her love of playing the part of one of the most intriguing writers in history. At 26, Mackey is only a year younger than Brontë was when she wrote Wuthering Heights. And although it’s not something she thought much about, she knows her character spending time at home with her family was a big influence on the way she lived her life.
“I left home when I was very young. I left home when I was 17. So I don’t know what it’s like to still live with your family at 27 and then 30 and still live with your dad,” Mackey explains of how the film showcases the Brontë family’s tight-knit and sometimes tense dynamic. “And there’s nothing wrong with that. But yeah, that was quite far-reaching for me.”
She’s a deeply anxious person, but she puts that anxiety to the service of her intelligence and her creativity.
“But yeah, it’s interesting, the piecing together of her trying to figure out who she is through her family members and to have interactions in that very kind of contained spaces was interesting. It was… I don’t know. It got me curious.“
The film doesn’t shy away from letting audiences know that Brontë was seen as an outcast. There are many uncomfortable moments handled with care in the film, particularly the strained spats with her siblings about her oddness. But Mackey says that it’s okay for those of us who may feel as Brontë did, that they are strange or outsiders in some shape or form. Her advice? To know you’re not alone and everyone is weird.
“She’s a deeply anxious person, but she puts that anxiety to the service of her intelligence and her creativity. And a lot of people don’t do that,” she says of Brontë’s quirks. “And it’s very easy to get sucked into your thoughts when they are dark and it’s very easy and comfortable.”
“So I think a good exercise is to exercise your brain and read as much as you can and then use whatever dynamics you have in you and whatever shifts you have. And you put them to the service of art and put them to the service of whatever it is you like,” she says. “But I think this particularly for this story, it’s okay. It makes sense that she put it all into her writing.”
Mackey is a force in the role. Her facial expressions transform from cheeky glee to desperate longing with simple nuances; you can feel the Brontë whimsy when she lets loose — quite literally, as her character twirls around while on opium in the lush, sprawling moors — and you descend with her into moments of madness, entranced by her will to carve out a life she wants. It’s partly why she hopes viewers will be transported into Emily’s world.
“I think we create a real universe there. And visually, I think [the film] has its own signature. And I like that,” she says. “It’s always kind of in movement. The camera’s always in movement, and we use only natural lighting. There’s no artifice to it at all.”
There are scenes filled with sunshine and blooming botanicals, and others with looming rainclouds and dark skies. But it all informs the environment in which Brontë stepped into her own.
“It’s obviously so formative of that family and how they existed because they were just [in] a tiny village in the north of England and surrounded by death. Like surrounded by death,” she says. “Emily’s actual room at Haworth Parsonage looks out to a graveyard. Her whole life, she woke up to graves.”
“She must have been so happy and so chilled in her life,” Mackey jokes.
Aside from the film’s mise en scène, she hopes viewers will “go on a journey” and “get swept away by it.”
“And I also don’t want them to overanalyze it in the same way that Wuthering Heights should be overanalyzed, because I would, you know what I mean? I don’t want people to be like, ‘Ugh, I don’t really know what it’s trying to be.’ I think that’s the point,” she says. “Don’t try [to] superimpose a formula onto it, it won’t work.”
“Just let it happen to you, I think,” she adds.
It’s about a life, that’s all. And a rich one at that.
With any period piece, there are always the die-hard fans who will critique the adaptations of their favourite novels — anyone whose seen some of the reactions to Netflix’s take on Jane Austen’s Persuasion knows that readers take the translation of the material to the screen very, very seriously. However for Mackey, she says that Emily is a film for anyone, even those who may not be familiar with the famous novelist.
“I don’t think this film was made for necessarily just Brontë fans — that would be, you know, too restrictive. And I think hilariously, I think people who are like, proper Brontë nerds would be like, ‘Well, this is not historically accurate. What are we doing?'” she laughs.
“But I think that’s the whole point. And it took me a while as well, because… I’m not Cartesian, but I like facts and I like history and I like, you know, sticking to the script. And so it took me a while to kind of untie that in me and just let the story happen to me and figure that out with Frances and let our imaginations run wild.”
“It’s about a life, that’s all. And a rich one at that.”