“Wild Nights with Emily” Dickinson: Comedy with Earnest Intent

“Wild Nights with Emily” Dickinson: Comedy with Earnest Intent May 19, 2019
Molly Shannon and Susan Ziegler, as Emily and Susan Dickinson, in “Wild Nights with Emily”

I’ll admit, at first I was put off by the contemporary style of writer/director Madeleine Olnek’s revisionist biopic of Emily Dickinson, Wild Nights with Emily.  Its wobbly handheld camerawork – mingled with freeze frame and split screen sequences, and irreverent poem recitations – doesn’t jive with the tradition of respectable period pieces, nor does the skit-like feel of many scenes.

However, Wild Nights progressively grew on me, as I gleaned the subversive purposes behind Olnek’s brash choices.  And frankly, it offers a welcome yang to the stodgy yin of Terence Davies’ 2016 Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion.  While Davies’ film featured witty wordplay and an excellent central performance by Cynthia Nixon, its dialogue was declaimed in a stilted, artificial manner.

On further review, Davies also relied on outdated scholarship for A Quiet Passion, in presenting Dickinson as a weird recluse with unrequited love for a local married parson.  Still worse (and sadly ironic for a filmmaker who is gay), he neglected research published 20 years ago that used spectroscopy to reconstruct erased segments of Dickinson’s letters and poems, showing pretty much indisputably that the love of the poet’s life was her neighbor and sister-in-law Susan.  Remarkably, Davies even has Cynthia Nixon cast pining looks at a female companion, code in homophobic Hollywood of the ‘50s and ‘60s for repressed homosexuality.  (See Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope for a sad example of this.)

A reader may be asking, “Why should any of this matter; it’s just about the poems, right?”  Well, without falling into the pit of psychobiographical absolutism, understanding the artist helps us understand their art.  It’s akin to Beethoven’s Heilegenstadt Testament, his letter to his Immortal Beloved, and his furiously scratched-out dedication to Napoleon on his Third Symphony:  these give us insights into the radical emotionalism of his music.  In addition, as students of great art – and, along with Walt Whitman, Dickinson is one of the two great American poets of the 19th Century – we inevitably crave to understand its creators.

Wild Nights cleverly, coherently leaps back and forth across three periods in the life and afterlife of Dickinson (1830-1886).  We see Emily and Susan as adolescent schoolgirls, their romantic curiosity shown in a non-exploitative, giddy manner.  (In one of several scenes that playfully ridicule the era’s fashions, their colliding hoop skirts prevent them from getting too close as they walk together.)

Twenty years later, Susan has married Emily’s brother Austin, partly out of affection for him, but mostly to stay near his sister.  Their dalliances are constricted by Susan and Austin’s three children, but they remain intimately connected by multiple daily letters couriered by the kids.

And finally, these two eras are framed by a posthumous ladies’ book talk held by Dickinson’s first editor, Mabel Todd.  A classic unreliable narrator, we only learn the reasons for her unreliability later in the film.  The director exposes her fictions through delightful comic timing:  a scene of Todd informing her rapt audience that the poet never shared her work with a soul is immediately followed by one of Emily impatiently awaiting Susan’s response to her newest batch of poems.

Further giving the lie to Todd’s claim, we’re also privy to Dickinson’s face-to-face meeting with Atlantic Monthly editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, pleading for publication.  The editor condescendingly rejects Dickinson’s submissions, whilst simultaneously claiming advocacy for women’s rights.

Molly Shannon with Brett Gelman, as Higginson, in “Wild Nights with Emily”

In a comic cut scene, we analogously observe Higginson attempting to prove his wokeness to a group of black Union soldiers.  Though funny, Higginson seems unfairly chosen as a symbol of white male privilege, given the reality that he repeatedly put his life and reputation on the line for abolition and women’s suffrage.  Bland artistic taste (he hated Whitman’s poetry, too) doesn’t always equate with retrograde politics.

To her credit, writer/director Madeleine Olnek avoids preachiness in scoring her points about 19th (and 21st) Century misogyny and homophobia.  This is helped by the film’s abundant humor, as well as its musical accompaniment of jaunty solo piano and playful pizzicato.

The leads in Wild Nights lack the acting chops of their counterparts in A Quiet Passion.  Yet, here also, the film grew on me.  The relationship portrayed by Molly Shannon (as Emily) and Susan Ziegler (as Susan) steadily builds in emotional resonance, with a concluding scene between the two of memorable force.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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