“Funerals are her entertainment,” Mabel Loomis Todd (Amy Seimetz) says about Emily Dickinson. This is one more detail about the reputation she wants to build for the poet she’s publishing posthumously. But new scholarship adds more color to who she really was. And that scholarship manifests itself in cinematic form with Madeleine Olnek’s Wild Nights with Emily. It shows her both as an adult (Molly Shannon) and a teenager (Dana Melanie). She grew up to be someone without a legal spouse. But she had a lifelong relationship with her sister-in-law, Susan (Susan Ziegler). Mabel and our English literature professors either didn’t know about Emily and Susan or lied by omission.
Wild Nights with Emily differs from the other Dickinson biopic in that respect. It often cuts to Mabel holding a lecture to other women who are discovering Dickinson for the first time. She’s telling them about a “Master,” the recipient of her letters. And Mabel’s theory on this Master is that it’s not just any man but many unrequited loves. None of this is correct, of course, since she’s an unreliable narrator. Mabel’s scenes, like the rest of the movie, do not have the varnish that most period films have. It’s as if it’s exposing a disconcerting truth with cheap lighting and sets.
The scenes with Emily have an effectively funny tone to them, the casting of Shannon indicates to that. The real Dickinson probably had her fears of publishing the same way most writers did but she did try. Wild Nights with Emily shows her receiving and making house calls with prospective publishers. The ‘humor’ here comes from a dark place. In these scenes, she has to listen to men like Atlantic editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Brett Gelman). He’s trying to explain poetry to her through pithy sayings, contrasting her valid opinions of the art form. This scene shows two factors leading to Emily’s downfall. One is her tendencies for self sabotage and the other is Thomas and the worlds’s real misogyny and homophobia. The film’s tendencies to blame the latter over the former, as real as the latter is, feel unhealthy.
This is not the first time Molly Shannon stars in this kind of movie. One that tries to renew our perspective towards a historical figure. It’s also not the first time she was in a historical movie with anachronistic elements. However, those elements add up to a wrong headed approach. Emily’s scenes with Susan should be the film’s centerpieces, exposing Emily’s insecurities and Susan’s supportive nature. But the stilted dialogue there does not make us feel for them. It also feels like their dialogue serves as perfunctory history lessons instead of something more organic or spontaneous.
The original narrative about Dickinson’s life is complex. A solitary figure, no one appreciated her during her life, making her shut out the world. This movie’s aims of course correction wants to cast the characters in Dickinson’s life as either heroes or villains. There are a lot of scenes showing Mabel trying to impress Emily’s brother, which led to control Emily’s legacy. As true as this is, Olnek’s retelling of this story feels reductive and even cruel. This film has a sadistic perspective towards its historical figures. It also makes assumptions about their motives, leaving a bad taste in my mouth.
- Genre: Comedy, Drama, History
- Release Date: 6/7/2019
- Directed by: Madeleine Olnek
- Starring: Molly Shannon, Susan Ziegler
- Produced by: Casper Andreas, Todd Remis
- Written by: Madeleine Olnek
- Studio: Salem Street Entertainment
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