Everything you know about “spinster-recluse” Emily Dickinson is wrong, and Wild Nights With Emily is here to educate you. After her death, an act of literal gay erasure wrongly defined the American poet to the public. Since then, members of her family, historians, and academics have revealed personal letters and poems in an attempt to restore Dickinson her identity and dignity. But to little avail. Now, inspired by these letters, poems, and studies, writer/director Madeleine Olnek has crafted a warm, randy, and hilarious biopic to set the record straight on the seminal queer poet.
Wild Nights With Emily begins by introducing Emily (Molly Shannon) and Susan (Susan Ziegler), her dear friend since girlhood. The two enter a charming receiving room, their bell-like skirts wafting softly. They greet each other warmly, hold hands, kiss briskly. Then grasp each other in a passionate fervor that mounts until they collapse to the floor for some out-of-frame hanky panky. The film is the story of their decades-long love, which survived long distance, jealousy, and Susan marrying Emily’s brother Austin (Kevin Seal). The two women lived next door to each other, saw each other every day, and passed notes of affection even more often. But Wild Nights With Emily is not just their story. It also reveals how theirs was hidden from history by the ruthlessly ambitious Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz).
Mabel was the unlikely introduction of Emily to the world. While 11 of Emily’s poems had been published in her lifetime, most would be released posthumously. And it was Mabel’s literary ties and unwelcomed “editing” that would make it happen. In Wild Nights With Emily, Mabel is a narrator, but far from omniscient. In the opening credit, as Emily and Susan furiously make out, Mabel’s voiceover tells us “too much is made” of their relationship. Throughout the film, her voiceover is a running reminder of the popular narrative she helped peddle. But it runs in comical contrast to what we’re shown. Reclusive Emily goes to parties at Austin’s place. Unloved Emily cuddles with her lady love, Sue. Spinster Emily endures the prattling on of a condescending and foolish would-be suitor.
At each turn, Olnek manages to bring life into the legacy of Dickinson by correcting the record with a vivacious sense of humor. The austerity of 1800s Amherst—with its conservative costumes and prim home decor—is joyously punctured with a comedic tone out of a Christopher Guest mockumentary. While Emily and Susan exchange witticisms about a mumbling Ralph Waldo Emerson or a macking merry widow, the rest of this eccentric ensemble carry on in straight-faced lunacy, unaware of their own ridiculousness. One exchange that still has me giggling occurs when Austin asks their sister Lavinia (Jackie Monahan) if she could persuade Emily to meet Mabel. Her completely sincere reply offered a string of unusual solutions, including: “Does Mabel know that Emily is a person? Because I also do have cat named Emily Dickinson. So we wouldn’t be lying.”
Wild Nights With Emily is bursting with comedic brilliance. Monahan is perfectly daffy as crazy cat lady Lavinia. Seal is stellar as Emily’s sweet but doltish brother. Seimetz shrewdly gives Mabel a big, bright smile that never reaches her eyes. And when she’s called upon for some outlandish sex scene shouting and skirt hurling, she’s totally game! Brett Gelman—a “that guy” of the first order—brings a perfectly vexing condescension as a publisher who informs Emily her poems need “limbs” cut off. And every bit player completely gets the subtle yet absurd humor at play here. Even simple lines like “Is there food” inspire bark-laughs because of the precise timing and willful ruthlessness of their delivery! But it’s Ziegler and Shannon who make this movie so much more than funny.
An icon of Saturday Night Live, Shannon is known for throwing herself whole-bodied into a character or bit. She’s flung herself into tables and chairs as Mary Katherine Gallagher and exerted overwhelming energy as Sally O’Malley. But such antics aren’t required here, and still Shannon is marvelous. She wins laughs with the squint of her eyes and snugly knit brow, through the pained politeness she offers a grating guest, or the smirk of satisfaction at getting a Sapphic sexual poem published. But there’s a longing too. In a performance soft yet sharp, Shannon exposes the throbbing heart of Emily Dickinson, who did not live and love quietly as her sanitized persona declared. She sang her love out in thousands of poems and letters. She tried tirelessly to get the world to see them. And Olnek restores her passion through this winsome romance.
With flirtatious smirks, a no-nonsense tone, and a breathy wonder at Emily’s work, Ziegler swiftly establishes Susan as a passionate partner to the poet. Her ease with Shannon grounds the long bond between these women, and the heat that sparks between them in conversation, argument, and kisses speaks to their passion—even as the film chooses to keep their sex offscreen. Rather than offering us a chance to leer or ponder the sexual proclivities of Emily Dickinson, Wild Nights with Emily wants us to understand the poet’s passions and what they meant to her life and work. Susan was not just a friend or sister or lover, she was a muse. And once Emily was gone, this widow was robbed of her standing by a greedy rival and a merciless rubber-eraser.
The story of Wild Nights with Emily is eye-opening and will dare audiences to reconsider their conception one of America’s greatest poets. Olnek imagines these women not as stiff figures of propriety and female frustration, but as real women, with thirst, humor, and complexity. And she gives us all this in the swaddling of a delightful comedy, breezy yet barbed. So this biopic doesn’t feel like a stern history lesson or a dogged sermon. Like the remarkable poet at its center, Wild Nights with Emily is playful, clever, and alive.
Wild Nights With Emily is now in theaters.
Header Image Source: Greenwich Entertainment