Frances O’Connor: ‘I’m putting Emily Brontë in the centre of her own story’

Frances O’Connor was a 15-year-old pupil at an all-girls Catholic school when she first read Wuthering Heights on the hour-long bus journey to and from her home in the hills outside Perth, Western Australia. “It was the feeling of the elements, and the environment, that I recognised so strongly from my own childhood,” she says. “I remember not wanting to leave that windy, gothic, slightly supernatural place to go back to the real world.”

She also loved “just how kickass Cathy and Heathcliff were – that feeling of being misunderstood and not belonging. As a teenager, their rebelliousness really spoke to me.” Forty years later, she has brought those sense memories to a story about the novel’s author Emily Brontë, in a directorial debut that she expects to enrage some purists while hoping it will inspire a new generation of young women as the novel once inspired her.
The woman who breezes up for a photoshoot and interview from her north London home, where she lives with her actor husband Gerald Lepkowski and their 17-year-old son, is simply and practically dressed for the turn of the English seasons. Though she has a makeup artist in tow, there’s nothing look-at-me about an actor whose own starring roles in period dramas have included the title role in Madame Bovary, Fanny Price in Mansfield Park and Rose, glamorous wife of the retail genius in the ITV hit series Mr Selfridge.

She speaks in a slight Australian accent, ending every sentence on an upward note, which has the effect of making statements into questions. “That’s a bit ageist?” she snaps, when I clumsily ask why she has left it so late to graduate from acting to directing. It’s a bracingly – and refreshingly – direct rebuke, which is of a piece with her explanation of a film that’s something of a feminist passion project. “I would have done it 10 years ago, but I just think women second guess ourselves a lot. And sometimes it takes us a while to get the courage to step into something that we really feel passionate about,” she says. “But if you’re going to tell a story now, I think it’s good for it to speak to women in a way that’s alive, rather than as something they’re looking at from behind a very respectful glass case.”
Emily is not a conventional biopic, a fact it signals early on with a creepy mask-play in which Emily (played by Sex Education’s Emma Mackey) freaks out her siblings by appearing to invoke the spirit of their dead mother. “Anyone who gets past the mask scene and thinks they’re still watching a biopic is probably in the wrong movie,” says O’Connor. The question that drives it is how the prickly recluse of historical record, holed up with her siblings in a parsonage (apart from a brief, disastrous stint as a schoolteacher), could have been able to summon such passion not only in her single novel but in her poetry.

O’Connor’s answer is to pair her up with one of the six curates who joined the Brontë household over the years: a man so beloved by the parishioners that he was memorialised by them, after his untimely death from cholera, in a plaque on the wall of Haworth church. William Weightman, it reads, was a man of “orthodox principles, active zeal, moral habits, learning, mildness and affability” – not the qualities that are brought most quickly to mind by Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s lusty portrayal.

Yes, but wasn’t it Anne Brontë with whom Weightman was thought to have had a romantic entanglement? “It is, but if you read up on it it’s disputed. There was one comment from Charlotte and that’s it,” says O’Connor, who cites a range of Brontë studies, not least one by Lucasta Miller, which argued that each age recreates the family in its own image. This may be fiction, but it has been conscientiously thought through.
O’Connor traces the seeds of the film back to the late 1990s, when she was in London as the lead in a star-studded film of Mansfield Park. Finding herself at a loose end when the writer-director went off sick for a fortnight, she jumped on a train to Haworth. “I was so in love with acting that I didn’t even think of directing. But I did think this is such an evocative place, and they’re such interesting characters. I felt a little bit close to them in a way, and there was something that was very cool about that. It just really piqued my imagination.”