Wild Nights with Emily, 2019.
Written and Directed by Madeleine Olnek.
Starring Molly Shannon, Amy Seimetz, Susan Ziegler, Brett Gelman, Jackie Monahan, Kevin Seal, Dana Melanie, Sasha Frolova, Joel Michaely, and Lisa Haas.
Dramatisation of the little known side of the writer Emily Dickinson’s life, in particular her relationship with another woman.
It’s fitting that Wild Nights with Emily, a challenging counterpoint to society’s typical understanding regarding the reclusive and self doubting Emily Dickinson’s life, stars Saturday Night Live‘s Molly Shannon in the titular role as writer and director Madeleine Olnek (once again tackling LGBTQ studies and boosting the historical importance of the community in the process here with her third feature film) foregoes heavy drama (although the film is not without its emotional moments, especially towards the end) in favor of sketch comedy bits that juxtapose perceived facts with highly plausible fiction.
In a nutshell, some segments are funny, some contain biting social commentary that is still relevant to our current landscape, some accomplish both feats, and some warmly elicit the hypothesized tender, often sexual, love, between Emily Dickinson and her sister-in-law Susan Ziegler’s Susan Dickinson (who would go on to marry Emily’s brother not just for financial support, but to also ensure that they would always be near each other). Simultaneously, just as many bits fall flat, causing the whole endeavor to drag on and on resembling a Saturday Night Live skit extended way beyond its shelf life. Thankfully, the film is both incredibly short at only 84 minutes and shifts to a more dramatic gear during its final act, but there is still the sensation that simply not all of Wild Nights with Emily works as intended.
There is a simple but effective framing device that sees a colleague of Emily Dickinson, Amy Seimetz’s Mabel teaching a small library room of poetry aficionados what would go on to be the textbook history of the world-celebrated writer. She’s also the individual that edited many of Emily’s works for posthumous publishing, altering important details, namely erasing any and all indications of a secret love affair between Emily and Susan as the male-dominated industry prefers to run pieces showcasing a woman’s desire for heterosexual love. Basically, if you want to believe what the movie is trying to tell you (and it does make a fairly convincing effort utilizing, with permission, actual anecdotes of Emily Dickinson’s poetry alongside some really intriguing facts prior to the ending credits), it’s a case of sexual identity erasure. What that said, Mabel launches into subject after subject of Emily’s life, which then cuts to Emily’s life in an effort to demystify the rumors and show us what really happened, sometimes with Mabel’s lecturing continuous narration for added laughs.
As mentioned, some of the segments are terrific feminist takedowns of male-controlled industries that will find any number of reasons to either keep a woman down (regardless of talent) or only allow her to succeed on men’s own terms. Specifically speaking, an interaction with a prominent newspaper editor who rejects Emily’s work for ridiculous reasons successfully elicits not only laughs but a real gut-punch that we may still be living in that same era. Equally fascinating are passages that make use of Emily’s poetry on-screen serving as aesthetic subtitles contrasted with imaginings of what the writings could be saying.
Unfortunately, a good amount of the film also fails to generate interest; Emily and Susan don’t feel like characters but rather joke machine punchlines which keeps emotional investment into the couple at bay. Really, the only outrage from Wild Nights with Emily comes from the very real possibility that much of her life was repurposed in order to fit acceptable practices of society. There are fleeting moments where we can sense the passion, but they also come from the actual poetry more than the screenwriting of the film itself.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m actually very glad that Wild Nights with Emily isn’t the standard stuffy period piece biopic (again, the shoestring budget is impossible to put together production and costume design that would allow viewers to take any of this remotely seriously) and is attempting to carve out its own path bringing awareness to the truth, but it could stand to either be a little funnier and contain more character depth. It’s more concerned with debunking myth after myth rather than really telling a powerful tale of taboo love. As it stands, it’s also fairly intriguing and absolutely important to more than the LGBTQ community, but the grand scale of history.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com