Wild Nights with Emily

Instead of the hermit spinster that she’s often imagined as, Madeleine Olnek uses Dickinson’s own vivid writing to paint her as an altogether gayer character, in both senses of the word

Film Review by Iana Murray | 28 Jun 2018
  • Wild Nights with Emily
Film title: Wild Nights with Emily
Director: Madeleine Olnek
Starring: Molly Shannon, Amy Seimetz, Susan Ziegler Brett Gelman, Jackie Monahan, Sasha Frolova, Dana Melanie, Allison Lane, Stella Chesnut

History hasn’t been too kind on Emily Dickinson. Since her work was accepted into the literary canon, she has long been depicted as a reclusive spinster too scared to publish her poetry. Madeleine Olnek’s delightful romp Wild Nights with Emily looks to revise that myth. It would make one hell of a double bill with last year’s Emily Dickinson movie A Quiet Passion. Olnek’s period comedy is a much gayer time (in every sense of the word) than Terence Davies’ elegant character study.

Molly Shannon is having a career resurgence of sorts (a Shannaissance, perhaps) with Wild Nights continuing her series of stellar turns in indie hits. Shannon reimagines the poet as a playful goof with a fiery passion for not only her writing but her lifelong lover Susan (Ziegler).

From the opening shot in which Emily and Susan give each other small pecks until it escalates to a comically exaggerated make-out session, the film is unabashedly direct in affirming that Dickinson was, in fact, a lesbian. The two women begin their affair as teenagers under the guise of friendly sleepovers and continue until adulthood. As next-door neighbours, their covert trysts involve many runs across front gardens in petticoats and modest undergarments.

Wild Nights is a comedy through and through but is still emotionally resonant. Heartfelt and genuine, the film understands the unbreakable love Emily and Susan shared. A significant portion of time is dedicated to readings of Dickinson’s poetry and letters to Susan (in voiceover, reenactments or on-screen text), many of which are so romantic it’ll make the most stubborn of cynics swoon.

Though not overtly political, it’s also a quietly feminist film, as Emily faces some very male obstacles that prevent her from getting published; it was the 19th century. It should be obvious that Emily never saw success because of a society that underestimates women. One can only hope that today’s society stops underestimating Emily Dickinson too.

Wild Nights with Emily screen at Edinburgh International Film Festival on 28&30 Jun – more details and tickets here

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