Judging by the title of Madeleine Olnek’s gloriously revisionist Emily Dickinson biopic and its star, “Saturday Night Live” alum Molly Shannon, I assumed “Wild Nights With Emily” would be comedic to some extent. What I did not expect, however, was how uniquely effective and eye-opening this story would be — and it centers around a poet so well-known it feels easy to dismiss.
But “Wild Nights With Emily” will send you looking for your copy of “The Norton Anthology of American Poetry,” because it blows open the myth of the spinster poet with a mood that is contemporary, yet, somehow, still feels accurate.
This totally fresh comedy-drama uses silliness in such a special, almost authoritative way. There is a very playful undercurrent to this film, but it does not make fun of Dickinson. It feels more like Dickinson is making fun of us, or at least what we think we know about her. This Dickinson is savvy, joyful, loving and, perhaps most surprisingly, portrayed to perfection by Shannon, who most of us associate with over-the-top comedic characters from the 1990s. It is irreverent in the best way, instructing us that we have long been reverent to a false version of Dickinson’s narrative.
Informed by her private letters, this film tells the true story of Dickinson’s lifelong love affair with her brother’s wife, Susan. Susan and Dickinson met as girls, and felt deep and strong feelings for one another that lasted throughout their lives. Susan accepts a marriage proposal from Dickinson’s brother, Austin, as a cover for her relationship with Dickinson. They will build a house next door, and it won’t seem inappropriate for sisters-in-law to spend time together.
“Wild Nights With Emily” is also bracing in its depiction of her creative process. As a woman, I found scenes of her writing poetry on the back of a gingerbread recipe utterly romantic and delightful. The woman who first published a book of Dickinson’s letters, Mabel Loomis Todd, tried to portray her as a recluse afraid to publish her work, and the structure of the film is one long, ironic take as to her extremely self-serving reasons for creating and promoting that image.
This film is an academic reappraisal of her work that literally examines the concept of erasure, as Todd and Dickinson’s brother (Susan’s husband) physically erase Susan’s name from Dickinson’s work before they publish it. This strange little film is both intellectually rigorous (the film’s director received a Guggenheim Fellowship for her work and Dickinson’s real letters were used, courtesy of the Dickinson Archives at Amherst College) and simply a lot of fun. It boasts heart-breaking scenes of love and loss, but also a brilliantly hilarious sequence that addresses the idea that Dickinson’s poems can be sung to the tune of “Yellow Rose of Texas.”
I think I loved this film simply for the depth and breadth of disapproving looks on display as Dickinson and Susan, who were truly partners all their lives, endured our evergreen companion: misogyny. These women were serving smirks all day long, and I was here for it. Brett Gelman (“Fleabag”) shows up to condescend with publishing advice as editor of “The Atlantic Monthly,” but while he cautions her that she is not ready, it is he who is not prepared for her or her work.
And a scene with an ancient family friend, a judge, “explaining” some plot points from the Brontë sisters is absolutely priceless. The point of “Jane Eyre,” he explains to Dickinson, is that a plain woman, like Dickinson herself, may marry a fire victim. I will leave you to enjoy Shannon’s face after that succinct summation.
The title of this film fits perfectly, because while it might seem to be intentionally ridiculous, “Wild Nights With Emily” is taken directly from one of her poems: “Wild nights — Wild nights! Were I with thee / Wild nights should be / Our luxury!” A weird, droll, fascinating story, this is an unabashedly woman-centered view of an ossified image that has been gleefully, hilariously smashed to pieces.
“Wild Nights With Emily” is available to stream.
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