Synopsis: Playwright and director Madeleine Olnek delivers an insightful and hysterical exploration of poet Emily Dickinson’s lesbian love affairs in Wild Nights With Emily. (AG: 3/5)
Review by FF2 Intern Anika Guttormson
If you walk into Wild Nights With Emily with the idea that it’s going to be a somber tale about “spinster-recluse” Emily Dickinson then you’re in for a massive shock! Director Madeleine Olnek refuses to buy into this narrative of the outstanding poet, played by Molly Shannon, and instead infuses her life with a wit and humor that will make you fall in love with Emily all over again. The film opens with editor Mabel Todd, played by Amy Seimetz, explaining the work she did compiling all of almost 2,000 of Emily’s poems into one collection after her death. Her narration runs as an antagonistic cord throughout the entire film. Everytime she edits out details of the life of our so-called recluse we get to see a vignette of Emily acting the complete opposite.
What Olnek shows us in her film is probably a much more accurate version of what Dickinson was like: lively, happy, and filled with love from her sister-in-law and lover Susan, played by Susan Ziegler. The story follows the two from their childhoods awkwardly reading Shakespearean love scenes to one another and laughing over the idea of two of Shakespeare’s male actors kissing one another during the love scenes (women weren’t allowed to act during that time so the female roles were filled by men) to the realization that it might actually be fun if they kissed each other. From here we witness the two grow together from young adults to grown women and all the while Emily Dickinson’s poems flash across the screen as an aching reminder that this story is a reflection of her truth.
Shannon and Ziegler’s perform their roles beautifully: gracefully guiding the audience between humor and sorrow as needed. When Emily and Susan are play fighting over the use of Susan’s name in Emily’s poems, or hiding in the coats before heading downstairs to a party it’s easy to laugh along with them. In these charming moments the rest of the characters troubles fade away and we are left to absorb their enjoyment in one another. It almost becomes painful when Mabel Todd’s voice comes back in to remind us that society saw the relationship between these two women as nothing more than just close friendship.
The secondary plot of Wild Nights With Emily follows Emily as she struggles to get her writing published. Man after man turns down her desire for publication, citing some nonsense about how she doesn’t seem mature enough or capable enough to see her work in print. The character of Higginson, played by Brett Gelman, acts a stereotype of these men and spews all sorts of preposterous claims after reading the many poems that Emily submitted to him. In the end we are reminded that this astounding poet was only able to publish eleven poems in her entire lifespan.
The biggest drawback of Wild Nights With Emily lies not in its story or characters but in the execution of the film itself. It’s obvious that Olnek is better versed in the art of plays than in film. Moments such as when Mabel Todd tells an audience about Emily’s life felt awkward and staged. There are conventions in plays that don’t translate well into film language, with examples being heavy narration or drawn out monologues where the character looks into the audience (or in this case the lens of the camera), whose usage ultimately left me feeling awkward and unable to engage fully with the story.
Even so, Wild Nights With Emily does a beautiful job of restoring truth to the life of Emily Dickinson. I heavily commend Olnek for that achievement, awkwardness and all.
© Anika Guttormson (05/05/18) FF2 Media
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment
Q: Does Wild Nights With Emily pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
Many scenes feature just Emily and Susan talking to one another.