April 9, 2019 Wild Nights With Emily (Movie Review)
Emily Dickinson. Was she an awkward, unloved recluse who was afraid to publish her work or a brilliant mind ahead of her time who defied societal norms and loved passionately? Based off Dickinson’s personal correspondence, comedienne Molly Shannon stars in the brand-new Historical Comedy offering Wild Nights With Emily. The literary wit arrives to select theaters on Friday, April 12, 2019, thanks to Greenwich Entertainment.
One of the most beloved American poets, Emily Dickinson (Shannon: Superstar 1999, Will & Grace series) was born in Amherst, Massachusetts and there she spent her entire life writing. Of the poet’s nearly 1,800 poems, only 11 were published in her lifetime. History has made her out to be many things, but what if history is entirely wrong?
Well, history is all kinds of wrong — but that’s a whole other story! In Wild Nights With Emily, based off the poet’s written exchanges with her sister-in-law Susan (Susan Ziegler: TiMER 2009, Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 series), we are given a new spin on Dickinson’s life story. Here, during a Ladies Society Shakespeare recitation, young Emily (Dana Melanie: Waiting to Die in Bayside, Queens short 2017, Greenhouse Academy series) gazes longingly into the eyes of her best friend Susan (Sasha Frolova: The OA series, Red Sparrow 2018) and her life is forever altered.
Of course, the late 1800s in New England were not exactly welcoming to women who were passionately in love with other women. So in a bid to remain at her lover’s side, Susan marries Emily’s brother Austin (Kevin Seal: Pipe Dream 2002, Laggies 2014) and the newly-married couple build a beautiful home right next door to the Dickinson homestead. What follows is years of poetic letter-writing, the search for publication, several affairs, and kissing atop coats.
Clocking in at 84 minutes, Wild Nights With Emily was written and directed by Madeleine Olnek (Countertransference short 2008, The Foxy Merkins 2013). The film also features the phenomenal acting talents of Brett Gelman (The Other Guys 2010, Stranger Things series) as Higginson; Lisa Haas (Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same 2011, The Foxy Merkins 2013) as Maggie, Emily’s housekeeper; Joel Michaely (Can’t Hardly Wait 1998, The Rules of Attraction 2002) as Edward Dickinson; Allison Lane (Going Down in LA-LA Land 2011, Kiss Me, Kill Me 2015) as the widow Kate; Robert McCaskill (Flatbush Luck 2016, The So So You Don’t Know series) as Ralph Waldo Emerson; and David Albiero (The One 2011, Flatbush Luck 2016) as David Peck Todd.
Interestingly, Wild Nights With Emily is framed as a cautionary tale of how very easy it is to rewrite history. Throughout the film, Amy Seimetz (Alien: Covenant 2017, Pet Sematary 2019) portrays Mabel Todd, a writer and publisher who did not meet the poet until her funeral. (Insert a cymbal clang right here.) One of the first to publish Dickinson’s work posthumously, there is a very obvious reason for that: she was having an affair with Emily’s brother, Austin, and therefore had easy access to the poet’s body of work upon her death.
Years later, it was discovered that Todd freely edited and adapted Dickinson’s work to suit her own needs, erasing names (most often “Susan”) and giving the poems titles to help paint the picture that she wished to create of Miss Dickinson. Seimetz does a phenomenal job of portraying the flashy, melodramatic Todd, one that may leave you cringing at her character — which is clearly a compliment to Seimetz’ acting skills.
While Shannon is obviously known for her fully comedic roles, as Emily Dickinson, she is a natural. Cautious and a bit awkward at times with her enthusiasm, passionate in her love and words, but always hyper-aware of the limitations placed on her as a woman of the 1800s, Shannon’s Dickinson is the perfect sympathetic character. Furthermore, her readings of Dickinson’s poetry are moving, inspired; she caresses the words tenderly, lovingly delivering each line as it was meant to be — passionate, emotional, profoundly personal.
Though there’s not exactly a fiery romantic chemistry between Shannon and Ziegler, there’s certainly a great rapport that plays into their comedic back and forth and makes their relationship feel entirely natural. Ziegler’s Susan is the muse, the best friend and lover, a woman who passionately believed in Emily’s talents and continually urged her to seek publication. Ziegler gives a stellar performance in her role, balancing the nuances of Susan’s character perfectly. Every poet has her muse and Susan was clearly Emily’s!
Sorry guys, but it’s definitely all about the ladies here. As Emily’s younger sister Lavinia, Jackie Monahan (The Foxy Merkins 2013, Kiss Me, Kill Me 2015) also gives a wonderfully fun, comedic performance. Though her character is depicted as a bit imbecile at times, it all plays into the witty side of Wild Nights With Emily and Monahan delivers in spades with her perfectly poised, stone-faced delivery. Meanwhile, Melanie, as Young Emily, and Frolova, as Young Susan, are also wonderful in their roles, perfectly depicting the joyousness of being young and reveling in some flirty fun.
Additionally, Wild Nights With Emily features beautiful cinematography by Anna Stypko (The Foxy Merkins 2013, Porn Without Sex short 2016) and lovely costume design by Christine Casaus and Isabel Mandujano, complete with hoop skirts and the largely muted colors suitable of the time. In fact, Olnek’s screenplay is beautifully wrought and touches on many of the issues facing women, particularly female poets, in the late 19th century — including sexist rhetoric and the push for female writers to utilize male pseudonyms to be taken seriously. Is it a feminist work? Absolutely, but that’s merely one of the layers of the tale that sits alongside other concepts, such as not believing everything you hear and checking your sources.
Let’s be honest: the title Wild Nights With Emily seems to conjure to mind some half-baked entry into the Bad Moms franchise. Thankfully, instead, this intelligent and, yes, poetic film is for fans of Dickinson and her exceptional writing, as well as those heavily invested in literature and its creators, particularly the lives of 19th century American poets. A woman far ahead of her time, a prolific writer with God-given talent, Dickinson is often misrepresented, and this is a film that seeks to tell a more accurate version of her life as a writer.
Fortunately, Wild Nights With Emily dips into some self-mockery to remind its viewers that, as none of us knew Emily, we cannot possibly know for sure what is an accurate depiction of her character; making this a biopic with a great sense of humor. An enjoyable watch full of stellar acting performances, a historical glance at a phenomenally inspiring and talented woman, Cryptic Rock give Wild Nights With Emily 5 of 5 stars.