“Wild Nights with Emily” is a makeover of the image of legendarily “sad,” “loveless,” “reclusive” “spinster” poet Emily Dickinson.
It’s “Drunk History” without the alcohol. It re-examines the “legend,” and tears holes in it with laughs based on rock solid scholarship.
Have I mentioned how much I love “Drunk History?” It can come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Comedy Central show seeing this movie that writer-director Madeleine Olnek (“Countertransference”) has cited the comic “History” as a big influence on this queer reclamation of Dickinson’s reputation from the erasures of a presumptuous dunderhead who established the “myth” of “The Belle of Amherst” that has endured despite a rising mountain of evidence debunking it.
“Wild Nights” has Molly Shannon as the adult Emily, a frustrated poet who has a devil of a time getting her hundreds upon hundreds of poems published in her lifetime.
“They don’t rhyme!”
Yes, one and all agree, especially Atlantic Monthly publisher and literary critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Brett Gelman of TV’s “Another Period”). “The rhymes are a bit…off. She could…work on them, perhaps?”
Two myths die hard in that meeting, that Dickinson was a longtime recluse and that she was obsessed with “posthumous recognition” for her 1800 or so poems. She got poems published, and she tried, all her life, to get more published. She met publishers in order to accomplish that.
The other myth that “Wild Nights with Emily” concerns itself with is her sexuality. She wasn’t some repressed, loveless spinster who missed her chance at “happiness,” thus inspiring the sadness of much of her writing.
Emily was in love, from her teens onward, with her friend and later sister-in-law Susan (veteran character actress Susan Ziegler of “Hello, My Name is Doris” and many, many TV roles).
We’re shown how that romance flowered when they were teens — Dana Melanie plays the curious Emily, crushing on Susan Huntington Gilbert (Sasha Frolova), who eventually reciprocates.
We hear from Susan’s daughter, who wrote and spoke of this love which her teenage self could see with her own eyes as she passed thousands of notes between the women, who lived next door to each other in Amherst. We hear and see (every poem is subtitled to make the words and meter stand out) the poems and passionate letters that buttress this view of Dickinson as America’s most famous lesbian poetess.
That we haven’t known this about her until recently is explained, too.
As narrator, giving a “women’s club” talk about “Emily,” whom she never actually met, we meet the woman who literally ERASED Susan’s name from poems and those letters. Mabel Loomis Todd is given a smiling, dopey certitude by Amy Seimetz (“Alien: Covenant,” “Stranger Things”) who plays her as delusional about her intelligence and the validity of her interpretation of “Emily,” and villainous in a self-righteous way one often sees in lady TV preachers.
She’s right, because, well, she just is!
Imagine having this fraudulent expert, even though she was plainly a fan, in charge of Dickinson’s legacy.
Susan married Emily’s brother Austin (Kevin Seal), had two children by him and insisted they build a house next door to Emily and her dotty sister Lavinia (Jackie Monahan) because her true love dwelt there.
Seal’s Austin is a complex blend of indulgent sibling and husband, and clueless cad. He had a years-long affair with Todd that mirrored his wife’s romance with his sister.
Olnek doesn’t have much in the line of kinky fun with the sordid goings on in Amherst. The picture reaches for a jokey tone in its casting, the odd situation or one liner.
“Your sideburns are in my eye!”
There’s a light mockery of other figures of the day, including some of her contemporaries in poetry — the mumbling Emerson, etc.
But the poems, many of which are sampled here, deflate most of the film’s efforts at deadpan lightness.
Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me –
And even though the film is period-perfect, using actual locations and accurate costumes (hoop skirts are good for a laugh), “Wild Nights” suffers from a cell-phone video flatness in its cinematography, a little too “Drunk History” for its own good in that regard.
Shannon’s Dickinson is sharp and smart and a little exhausting (those her knew her vouch for that), Ziegler’s Susan devoted, aware of what’s going on if not entirely sure of how to characterize it and Seimetz’s Todd daffy in her wrongheadedness.
So it’s the players and the historical rewrite that recommend “Wild Nights with Emily,” not the wildness, not the nights nor the days, all of which are shot so flatly as to resemble a local PBS station’s production of “The Belle of Amherst,” circa 1985.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content
Cast: Molly Shannon, Susan Ziegler, Amy Seimetz, Kevin Seal, Brett Gelman
Credits : Written and directed by Madeleine Olnek. A Greenwich Entertainment release.
Running tine: 1:24