Film & Television

‘Wild Nights With Emily,’ A Wacky and Wonderful ‘What If . . .’

It’s been two years since A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies’s thoughtful and affectionate portrait of poet Emily Dickinson, was in theaters. Starring the multitalented Cynthia Nixon as Dickinson, the film offered hints as to why she chose her reclusive life, writing nearly 2,000 poems but publishing fewer than a dozen in her lifetime. Although the movie was well received by critics, who praised Nixon’s work in particular, its subject matter, length (more than two hours), and intense stillness didn’t appeal to mainstream audiences. It was shown in only 135 U.S. cinemas and grossed far less than its estimated €7 million budget.

A feminist and a former English major, I enjoyed A Quiet Passion. It was sensitive and intelligent, as much a study of the society into which Dickinson was born as a study of the poet herself. The cinematography was lovely, the casting perfect, all in all a very worthwhile way to spend an afternoon. Davies was clearly enamored of his subject, and he brought the notoriously enigmatic figure to life. He filled in some of the blanks, and audiences left feeling they understood the spinster poet better than they did before.

What Davies did not do was question whether the Dickinson we all think we know is an accurate picture of the flesh and blood woman. Enter Madeleine Olnek.

Olnek is an accomplished playwright and emerging director. Her interest in Dickinson began about a decade ago when she read a New York Times article about applying modern science to uncover previously unknown facts or misinterpreted assumptions about historical figures. In the story, the author wrote about using spectography (the measurement of refracted light waves) to determine what had been erased in Dickinson’s handwritten poems. With this information and significant additional research, Olnek pieced together a startlingly different interpretation. Presented first as a stage piece, Wild Nights with Emily is an entertaining, quirky, and terribly clever exercise in “What if . . .?”

The movie cuts back and forth between time periods, often with wry results, but I’ll deploy a more chronological description here. We meet Emily as a young girl, reading Shakespeare aloud with her close friend Susan. We soon learn that the girls are closer than most; they practice kissing and finagle a way to spend some weeks together (engaged in more than kissing) while the Dickinson parents are out of town. Emily is crushed to learn that Susan is engaged to Austin, Emily’s brother. But Susan explains that the girls’ relationship needn’t end; she and her new husband plan to live right next door.

Sure enough, their love affair continues, facilitated by notes carried back and forth between the houses by Susan’s children, and punctuated by close calls, which necessitate our disheveled heroine racing across their front lawns with her dress askew, and hoop skirts barely covering her bloomer-less legs. Susan is Emily’s muse, reader, critic, enthusiast, and promoter. She encourages Emily to publish, and contrary to popular opinion, Dickinson is quite desperate to do so. Her poems aren’t appreciated — or even understood — by the editors of the day. The smug editor of The Atlantic, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who believes himself to be a champion of the fairer sex (“The 19th century is the woman’s century!” he pronounces), tells Emily that her poetry isn’t ready yet and doesn’t hesitate to scratch out entire sections of her work. Rather than cower or fade away, Emily attempts to elevate the conversation into a debate about the nature of art and the value of posthumous publishing. It’s clear Higginson is no match for her and he escapes as quickly as he can.

Meanwhile, Austin finds that his wife is not receptive to his romantic advances (she is finding romance elsewhere—next door, to be specific), so he begins an affair with an obnoxious climber named Mabel Loomis Todd. Mabel is quite desperate to meet Emily, but is denied the opportunity. After the poet’s death, the real-life Mabel published — and, apparently, liberally edited — the first collection of Emily’s poems. Here, she is used as a framing device throughout the film, speaking to a literary group about Dickinson and taking credit for as much as she can (“I added the titles,” she proudly asserts, countering an earlier scene in which Emily rages that a newspaper has spoiled her poem completely by doing the same thing). In front of her devoted audience, Mabel actively weaves many of the half-truths that still surround the poet today.

SNL alumna Molly Shannon is marvelous as Emily. She is feisty and determined, quite the opposite of the prim and probably depressed Dickinson we’ve been conditioned to imagine. If she stays in her room, it’s because she doesn’t care to meet Mabel, who is, after all, having an affair with her brother. She’s willing to entertain an older friend of her father’s, the aforementioned editor, and, of course, Susan.

Susan is played by Susan Ziegler, a stage actress who has worked with Olnek in the past. She is less passionate than Emily, but equally devoted to her. The scenes between the two actresses are sometimes played for laughs, as when they are reunited after a spell and kiss each other prissily, then passionately, then fall to the floor entwined together behind a sofa. But more often, Ziegler and Shannon share moments of true companionship and physical attraction. Susan’s reaction to Emily’s eventual death leaves no doubt that there was true love between them.

The younger Emily and Susan are played by Dana Melanie and Sasha Frolova, who are utterly believable — as long as they’re not reading Shakespeare (which they stutter and stammer through comically). Kevin Seal is a bit doltish as Austin, while Amy Seimetz is sly and opportunistic as Mabel. Jackie Monahan plays the other Dickinson sibling, Lavinia, as a crazy cat lady.

Wild Nights with Emily is presentational in structure, with actors often speaking directly to the camera. Bits of Dickinson’s poetry appear onscreen, illuminated by scenes we’ve just seen. (When Susan reads, “I taste a liquor never brewed,” her eyebrows arch in knowing surprise.) Lavinia’s cat is not a live animal, but a piece of plush fabric, which nevertheless mews plaintively. When a minor character dies, the young actor walks to the center of the camera and then runs off-screen. At another point, the cast sings “Because I could not stop for death” to the tune of “Yellow Rose of Texas.” These flights of fancy add to the sheer delight of a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously — even as it’s promoting a fairly serious thesis about a purportedly misunderstood poet.

IndieWire has written that Olnek is becoming “one of the most exciting directors in queer cinema.” To date, she has written and directed a movie about lesbian aliens (Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same) and one about lesbian hookers who find clients coming in and out of Talbot’s (The Foxy Merkins). Wild Nights with Emily is her third feature. She admits that she wasn’t always a Dickinson fan.

“One of the surprises for me in getting to know Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters — which I never had because of that creepy, creepy image, I had no desire to read her work — but, once I got to know it, I was really surprised at the humor in it,” Olnek explained in an interview with “We’ve all been told Emily Dickinson didn’t want to be published … That she had no ambition, that she didn’t want anyone to read her poems, which is just nuts.

When asked about her experience as a female director, she is quick to point out that it’s difficult to be a woman in a leadership position in any field. “The importance of this discussion of female directors is this: Everything that people learn about women — how to see them, how to talk to then, who they are — is created through the media. From a young age, the images that people see of women come from television they watch, films they watch. Those images have not been created by women.”

She sees the (until now, perhaps) widely held image of Dickinson as a result of the same phenomenon. She’s adamant that Emily was no shrinking violet or agoraphobe. “It takes a lot of bravery and courage to write,” she insists. “To put your mind on paper and let people see it. Of course, Emily Dickinson was this incredibly strong woman. She wasn’t a frightened church mouse. It takes a lot of nerve to write.”


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