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Wild Nights with Emily
First run Theater cinema

When I sat down to watch a comedy about the secret life of Emily Dickenson that stars former SNL comedian Molly Shannon and comes from the writer/director of Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (2011), I didn’t expect the first image to be a title card thanking the Harvard University Press for its support and use of Dickenson’s letters and writings in the making of the film. But Wild Nights with Emily is not a spoof or satire about the famously reclusive, eccentric, death-obsessed poet—it's an alternative, yet still historically accurate, portrait of America’s most well known female poet, seen through a distinctly feminist lens. 

Part Drunk History inspired comedy and part fictionalized academic treatise, Madeleine Olnek’s stage-play-turned-film suggests that self-interested parties and the restrictive morality of the era are to blame for the myth that the Belle of Amherst was a sickly, introverted, spinster. This movie suggests Dickenson was, in fact, an ambitious, clear-eyed writer whose many attempts at publication were thwarted by ignorant men, and who carried on a passionate lesbian relationship with her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, for most of her life. These seemingly scandalous claims, and a number of intriguing (and humorous) subtler conclusions about Dickenson’s life and work, are supported by contemporary scholarship and an abundance of letters and poems the author left behind, currently housed at the Harvard University Press, the Amherst College Special Collections archives, and the Guggenheim Foundation. 

It’s an eye-opening conceit, and Shannon creates a dimensional interpretation of Dickenson. Susan Ziegler, playing “Sue,” delivers a light, appealing performance. Dana Melanie and Sasha Frolova also shine as younger versions of Jane and Sue. But the film’s unorthodox tone can be difficult to wholeheartedly embrace. At times it feels too broadly comedic, and other times too stiff and stately. Perhaps the closest cinematic kin to Wild Nights with Emily is Jeff Baena’s revisionist medieval comedy The Little Hours  (2017). But unlike Baena, Olnek doesn’t lean on anachronistic dialogue and conduct to make her points. She’s set herself a higher bar in that she attempts to apply a contemporary lens to her subject without violating the stylistic or behavioural mores of the period and setting. But it’s not a bar this film is always able to reach.

The movie’s non-linear structure, which jumps around in time to show Emily and Sue as young women, as adults, and those around her after she dies, helps us understand the conflicting perceptions of Dickenson. But the constant back and forth gets tedious. Olnek keeps returning to a turn-of-the-century address given by Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz), the woman responsible for getting much of Dickinson’s work posthumously published and who claimed to have known her well, though they never actually met. It’s fascinating to learn that the woman who edited (some might say redacted) Dickenson’s poetry before publishing it was the mistress of Austin Dickinson, Emily’s brother and Susan’s husband. But the intercutting of Todd’s self-congratulatory lecture with the “truth” behind what she spouts wears out its welcome. Surely a picture that aims for such subversive wit could find a wider variety of inventive ways to put across its illuminating conclusions.

Of course, the prim and proper trappings of any Emily Dickenson biopic can be restrictive. It’s only been a few years since Terence Davies’s measured A Quiet Passion  (2016) starring Cynthia Nixon as Dickinson. That reverential biopic managed to transcend decorum and explore the traditional depiction of Dickenson as a restrained individual with an unrestrained talent. Olnek curiously doesn’t allow the “wild” assumptions of her movie to fully disrupt its formality, but hers is the far more provocative picture. Where A Quiet Passion is an art film about an artist, Wild Nights with Emily is a feminist film about a feminist (and also a rather funny movie about an unexpectedly funny lady).

Twitter Capsule:
Olnek’s ambitious alternative biopic of Emily Dickenson delights and edifies despite its deliberately unbalanced tone and stilted presentation. 

Directed by Madeleine Olnek
Produced by Madeleine Olnek, Anna Margarita Albelo, Casper Andreas, and Max Rifkind-Barron

Written by Madeleine Olnek

With: Molly Shannon, Susan Ziegler, Dana Melanie, Sasha Frolova, Amy Seimetz, Brett Gelman, Jackie Monahan, Kevin Seal, and Joel Michaely

Cinematography: Anna Stypko
Editing: Tony Clemente Jr. and Lee Eaton

Runtime: 84 min
Release Date: 11 March 2018
Aspect Ratio: 1.78 : 1