Wild Nights with Emily (2018), written and directed by Madeleine Olnek, is a biographical comedic dramatization of the life of 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson. It shines a light on her life as a writer, her pursuit of success to become a published poet, her romantic relationship with Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, and dispelling the literary myth she was unloved and lived a life as a spinster recluse. Molly Shannon plays the adult Emily and Susan Ziegler plays the adult Susan. Amy Seimetz plays Mabel Todd, Austin’s mistress, and the first person to publish her poetry. Jackie Monahan plays the Adult Lavinia and Kevin Seal plays the Adult Austin. Dana Melanie plays the Young Emily, and Sasha Frolova plays the Young Susan. Allison Lane plays the Widow Kate. Lisa Haas plays Maggie, the maid. Robert McCaskill plays Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Brett Gelman plays Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
The film follows a non-linear structure. Olnek juxtaposes the narrative of Emily’s romantic relationship with her childhood friend Susan Huntington Gilbert who eventually goes on to marry her brother Austin and live next door in a new build against the narrative of Mabel Todd’s version of Emily’s life as she tells it during a talk at the Ladies Rotary Club Auxiliary celebrating the publication of Emily’s poetry. As adult women, Emily and Susan steal passion when they can and keep up a daily correspondence with Susan encouraging and inspiring Emily with her poetry. Emily’s brother Austin never suspects but Susan’s children seem to have an inkling especially Martha Dickinson.
Olnek has woven together many visuals elements including narration, diverse angle shots, superimposed images, juxtaposition of interior/exterior shots, editing techniques, and the filmification of Emily’s poetry to create a refreshing and intriguing film which puts aside preconceived notions of her life as a spinster recluse who never left her room. The motif of romance and intimacy between Emily and Susan and to a lesser degree between Austin and Mabel stitch the film into a cohesive structure. The film is peppered with comedic moments and touches of slapstick comedy which gives the film a “je ne sais quoi” feel. The opening shot of the two sisters-in-law greeting each other in the homestead parlor which turns into an embrace and then, a romp sets the tone for the film. Shannon is marvelous to watch as is Ziegler. Shannon gives a poignant portrayal of the head strong, irreverent, intelligent, and talented poet. Ziegler shines in her performance as Emily’s romantic love interest. Their performances allow us to empathize with their characters and experience the narrative of their romantic relationship.
The visuals reveal much about Emily’s life and the enduring and loving relationship she shared with her childhood friend Susan. There are many tender and touching scenes in the film and one of the loveliest and sweetest is seeing the adult Emily hoist down a basket of freshly baked bread from her bedroom window to a group of appreciative and smiling young children, and than, seeing the same children revisit the spot under different circumstances. There are many comedic moments in the film which are cleverly done and a hoot to watch especially seeing Shannon’s face as she hosts Judge Lord and listens to his rendition of the Bronte novels, or when she catches a glimpse of Ralph Waldo Emerson from a doorway. Another comedic highlight in the film is the scene between Austin Dickinson and Lavinia Dickinson. Austin impresses on his sister to force an introduction between Mabel Todd and Emily. Lavinia suggests she substitute her cat who happens to be called Emily Dickinson. One of the most moving and heart wrenching scenes in the film is seeing the adult Susan prepare Emily’s body for burial.
There’s so much to recommend the film. It retells the poet’s life in a bold and beautiful way and shatters preconceived notions about her spinster life, and character. It’s a film that celebrates the bonds of love between two women whose relationship found a way to thrive despite the constraints and conventions of 19th century American society. I am fan of period films about literary characters and this film went beyond my expectations for its refreshing take on Emily Dickinson’s life. It’s superbly acted, well-written, and beautifully shot. Olnek has succeeded in shattering the “lily white” image of Emily Dickinson and creating an authentic portrait of the true Emily Dickinson. If you are a fan of period pieces, you’ll love Wild Nights with Emily. If you are a fan of Molly Shannon, you’ll love her in her brilliant performance of the poet. If you are a fan of the poet Emily Dickinson, you’ll love the film for its authentic re-telling of her life. Do see it for you won’t be disappointed.
Greenwich Entertainment releases Wild Nights with Emily in Toronto and Vancouver on Friday, June 7, 2019