Wild Nights with Emily
by Hope Madden
Here’s a fun trend in recent indie filmmaking: let’s revisit our historic “spinsters”, shall we?
Craig William Macneill gave Lizzie Borden the treatment last year with Lizzie, offering a pretty speculative and yet decidedly clear-eyed plausibility. But Madeleine Olneck has actual history to back her up.
Plumbing Harvard University Press’s stash of Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters, Olneck suggests a different, funnier, slyer image of the “recluse poet.”
Wild Nights with Emily plays almost like an episode of Drunk History, although no one seems to be drunk. Olneck simulcasts two parallel retellings of the life of America’s most beloved female poet, and among its most beloved poets, regardless of sex.
Wild Nights does not disregard sex, though.
One storyline—the one you’ll recognize—is dictated by Mabel Todd (a delightful Amy Seimetz in a rare comedic performance). As she stands in her cotton candy pink dress and hat, she regales a rapt audience with stories of the Emily Dickinson she knew.
Well, “knew” seems to be a strong word.
Todd was, indeed, the first to publish Dickinson’s work aside from a stray newspaper editor here and there. And why was that? Because Dickinson was a recluse who shunned publication, as Todd defined it and history was so quick to embrace it?
Or because Dickinson’s rule-defying work was ignored by the literary establishment of her time and because she shunned Todd?
The offsetting narrative explores a different view of Dickinson, warmly and beautifully portrayed by Molly Shannon. Her relationship with lifelong friend, expert reader, fierce proponent and sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert (Susan Ziegler), fuels a poignant and funny story.
Is a likelier reading of Dickinson’s work and letters that of a passionate, lifelong love affair with Gilbert? Olneck’s consistently entertaining narrative certainly believes so.
This is a specifically political film, one that begs with outrage that we reexamine the stories we’ve been told about women in history—this one woman, in particular.
It’s also a mash note to the breathtaking originality and talent of the poet, whose words flow through the film without burdening it by self-importance or pretentiousness. No, Olneck’s audacious wit and Ziegler and Shannon’s performances—alongside spot on comic turns from Seimetz, Brett Gelman, Jackie Monahan and Kevin Seal—guarantee the film never bends toward anything remotely stuffy.
Instead, Wild Nights with Emily offers a refreshing and awfully entertaining new way of seeing an American treasure.