An Emily Dickinson comedy, starring SNL vet Molly Shannon! The elevator pitch for Wild Nights With Emily makes it sound like a pretty niche proposition, but almost all of us have wrestled with one of America’s most widely-read — and persistently enigmatic — poets.
Madeleine Olnek’s new movie advances a proposition that feels downright radical, given received wisdom about the writer. What if Dickinson wasn’t a bizarre recluse who had a way with words, but a confident proto-modernist poet who also happened to be a queer woman? The men who ran the 19th century literary establishment might have found that such an impossible combination that her life was erased along with the name of her sister-in-law Susan, a frequent dedicatee of her work.
Given that premise, it’s clear why the writer-director of Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same must have seemed like the right filmmaker to tackle this project. The movie directly attacks the idea of Dickinson as an asocial savant, but it also avoids painting her as either a pitiable victim or a wisecracking provocateur. Instead, Olnek hews to a wryly poignant tone that seems in keeping with the poet’s own work.
Shannon plays Dickinson with a perpetually furrowed brow, both frustrated and confused at having been born into a world that didn’t know what to do with her. She and her sister-in-law (played by a real-life Susan, Ziegler) are portrayed as being in what amounts to a lifelong marriage, coupling discreetly enough as to give their friends and family members plausible deniability.
The denial only becomes explicit when Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz), hired to play piano for the poet, becomes the posthumous editor of her work. Dickinson’s story is told in flashback, with her lived reality contrasting pointedly with Mabel’s account of the poet in an address to a ladies’ society. While she’s the most visible villain, men also get their licks in the person of literary critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Brett Gelman), who blithely dismisses the resolute Dickinson.
Though well-crafted, the film’s discipline makes it sometimes slow going. In humanizing Dickinson, Olnek also forgoes any temptation to stir trumped-up conflict or cultivate theatrical displays of passion. The relationship between Emily and Susan is portrayed with a realism bordering on the mundane: they’re tender together in the way of a long-married couple, sharing an emotional intimacy that sometimes tips into bickering.
When Dickinson’s brother Austin (Kevin Seal) begins an affair with Mabel, it’s more a matter of inconvenience and embarrassment than betrayal. Maybe, the movie suggests, the reason Dickinson stayed upstairs when Mabel was playing was that the poet didn’t want to walk in on her brother’s noisy exertions.
As an important corrective, Wild Nights With Emily will provide welcome fodder for class discussions and may go some way towards breaking down the heteronormative mythology surrounding the pioneering poet. The title is a little too ironic, though, for the movie to attract many audience members who aren’t already Dickinson devotees.