Movie Review: Wild Nights with Emily (2018)

Now Playing

Bookmark and Share

A freewheeling, revisionist look at the life of Emily Dickinson, Wild Nights with Emily boldly contradicts the popular narrative of the author as a virginal, reclusive spinster by using her poems and private correspondence to instead focus on the as yet untold story of the poet's romantic relationship with her girlhood friend turned sister-in-law Susan.

With the leads brought wondrously to life by Molly Shannon in the titular role and Susan Ziegler as Dickinson's near-lifelong muse and lover, although playwright turned filmmaker Madeleine Olnek's ambitious third feature struggles to find a consistent tone and rhythm throughout, when Wild Nights trusts in the richness of its biographical storyline, it never fails to weave a fascinating spell.

Initially purporting to be a comedy, the film opts for satirical humor as a counterpoint to its sudden change in point-of-view. Moving freely back-and-forth in time, Wild Nights contrasts Dickinson's actual day-to-day life as a prolific lesbian artist struggling against the small-minded (mostly male) literary gatekeepers of the era with the revised, "sanitized," and sensationalized version of her life put forth by Mabel Loomis Todd (played by Amy Seimetz) twenty years later.

The woman who would posthumously edit and publish Dickinson's work and create the Bronte-esque spinster persona the world would come to know, Todd — whom we discover was the mistress of Emily's brother and Susan's husband — serves as a kind of unreliable narrator throughout the film as well as its overall villain.

Frequently contrasting Todd's false narrative with Dickinson's actions to make a comedic point, Olnek inadvertently undercuts her own vital research. Shortchanging the film's emotional impact for the sake of the script's jokes — save for a few memorable exceptions — when an unfunny exchange goes on for too long or a sightgag doesn't land, the film's wavering, half-serious tone threatens to make us care less about Dickinson's otherwise engrossing life story than Wild's filmic approach.

Winning us over with its romantic arc which culminates in a heartbreaking split-screen image, from its flashbacks to Emily's younger years discovering romantic love through Shakespeare's words to her struggle to see the object of her affection marry her brother Austin (Kevin Seal), contrary to its earliest intentions as a broad comedy, Nights is vastly more successful as a drama infused with situational humor overall.

At times reminiscent of a college thesis project (and indeed, a packet filled with eye-opening articles and supporting material to back up Olnek's claims was made available to press), though bursting with knowledge and passion for the subject, Wild Nights serves up an academically intriguing if ultimately uneven chronicle of Emily Dickinson's life.

While nowhere near as sumptuous or polished as the recent big screen Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion from Terence Davies and starring Cynthia Nixon (regardless of how much it might adhere to Todd's legend), I applaud Olnek's decision to take a fresh, mothball free approach to the genre and especially her pursuit of Dickinson's true identity.

Obviously, a person's sexuality is no one's business but their own. However, given how many of Dickinson's nearly two thousand poems were dedicated to or inspired by Susan, it's vital to read them with that perspective in mind, and doubly so to ascertain just how much damage can be done when someone decides to "erase" a person's past in order to better fit their own prejudicial beliefs as well as their preferred vision for the future.

Needless to say, even if the message is better than the movie, more than one hundred years later, we must thank Olnek (and company) for refusing to be content to let the woman who wrote "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" be anybody except her wild, complex, and wholly original self.

Text ©2019, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information in order to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.