Hoping to dispel the long-held belief that the late poet Emily Dickinson was a recluse who didn’t want a relationship or anyone to ever read her work (a mythology still in play cinematically as recently as 2016’s A Quiet Passion, from director Terence Davies), the wickedly smart and funny Wild Nights with Emily follows the prolific writer (Molly Shannon) through her mid-19th century life, which included trying desperately to get her works published (a series of male publishers were particularly discouraging) while also having a long-term romance with sister-in-law Susan Gilbert (Susan Ziegler), to whom many of her love poems were expressly written.
Writer/director Madeleine Olnek (The Foxy Merkins) has painstakingly covered this period in Dickinson’s life, working with literary historians to piece together as accurate an account of the writer’s life and sources of inspiration as possible. The ironic twist in Dickinson’s life story has always been that Susan’s husband/Emily’s brother Austin (Kevin Seal) was flagrantly carrying on with a woman named Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz, currently featured in Pet Sematary), who ultimately became the person responsible for gathering and publishing Dickinson’s poetry and making them wildly popular. Her heavy editing (most of which has been reversed) and removal of Susan’s name from any of the original pages set back women writers and gay literature generations, but also made Dickinson a household name.
Although Wild Nights with Emily isn’t a comedy in the traditional sense, there is a defiance in the production that is quite amusing as the people around Dickinson misjudge or outright dismiss her talents (Brett Gelman as editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson is wonderfully and foolishly condescending). The film doesn’t wink at the fame that is to come after Dickinson’s death, but the audience knows what it knows, and the more the film erases decades-old “facts” about her, the more fascinating the entire work becomes, both as history and art. The relationship between Emily and Susan is portrayed as something perfect and fragile, but also as the most important thing in either of their lives. That makes the inability to discuss it with others all the more frustrating, which in turn makes Dickinson frustrated about just about every aspect of her personal and professional life.
There is also something quite timely in this story of a woman finally getting her true story told. She seemed quite eager to declare her love for Susan from the rafters, and her confidence in her abilities as a writer were limitless. She was ahead of her time in so many ways that telling her story today feels absolutely modern. Director Olnek has also crafted a beautiful-looking movie that frames the story like its own epic love poem to its subject. This is one of the year’s most enjoyable films to date.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.