We thought Cynthia Nixon gave us the perfect Emily Dickinson three years ago in “A Quiet Passion,” but Molly Shannon is just as fascinating as the Belle of Amherst in “Wild Nights With Emily,” a comedy-drama that takes a deliciously different take on the poet’s life and love.
Writer-director Madeleine Olnek gives a fresh look at the historical record, and follows the theory that Emily Dickinson wasn’t the reclusive old maid, as she was described after her death. Instead, Olnek portrays Emily (played as an adult by Shannon) as vibrantly alive and active, and engaged in a nearly lifelong love affair with Susan Gilbert (played by Susan Ziegler), her childhood friend and, later, the wife of Emily’s brother Austin (played by former MTV VJ Kevin Seal).
Why don’t we know this? Because Susan Gilbert Dickinson was erased from history, literally. Emily’s story is narrated here by Mabel Todd (“Pet Sematary’s” Amy Seimetz), who published Emily’s poems after her death, and claimed to be a close friend of Emily’s on book tours — even though Mabel admits the first time she saw Emily’s face was in her coffin. It’s Mabel who carefully selects Emily’s poems to promulgate the eccentric recluse narrative, which is more socially acceptable to Victorian audiences than the suggestion of a healthy lesbian romance.
Olnek pierces through the hypocrisy of those times with biting wit and a sly wink as Emily and Susan use those societal restrictions — and the cluelessness of their immediate family — to continue their furtive relationship.
And Olnek has the receipts. She got permission from Harvard University Press to use Emily’s poems, which become narration for some beautiful imagery about death, love and the infinite. Olnek finds the historical underpinnings that support ‘shipping Emily and Susan, particularly in a sublime montage of manuscripts over the closing credits.
With Shannon gifting Emily with her perfect comedic timing — like when Emily’s reclusiveness is explained by her avoiding going into the parlor when she hears other people’s lovemaking — Olnek finds humor in the poet’s dour Massachusetts life. She even demonstrates the old joke about how Dickinson’s poems — the example here is “Because I would not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me…” — can be sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”
Olnek’s use of humor is key, because it helps flesh out a fuller portrait of Emily Dickinson, and offers stark relief to the cruel, bigoted suppression of her sexual identity after her death.
‘Wild Nights With Emily’
Opened April 19 in select cities; opens Friday, May 17, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated PG-13 for sexual content. Running time: 84 minutes.