To make a comedy about Emily Dickinson, one of literature’s most famous depressives, is a bold enough move on its own. To then christen the film “Wild Nights With Emily,” which has the titillating tenor of a sex tape, further upends historical precedent. Surely, the movie must be swimming in postmodern irony.
Au contraire. The third, and breakthrough, feature from underground director Madeleine Olnick may be a speculative fiction, but it’s based on decades of posthumous research into the pioneering poet, which has gradually chipped away at her reputation as a morose spinster. At the core of Olnick’s narrative is Dickinson’s lifelong affair with her sister-in-law and champion, Susan Gilbert, which, in the filmmaker’s telling, nourished her romantically and intellectually until her final days.
In the process, Olnick has fun puncturing the reclusive mythos of her protagonist, the prudish mores of the era, and especially the patriarchy of turn-of-the-century Amherst. Even the title refers to an actual Dickinson poem—“Wild nights—Wild nights!”—an exclamatory burst of ecstasy that takes on a new meaning after Olnick’s assured telling. This revisionist biopic is so convincing that it should prompt a second look at Terence Davis’ acclaimed 2017 Dickinson biopic, “A Quiet Passion,” which seems in retrospect to be informed by outdated sources.
Olnick frames her story around the efforts of Mabel Loomis Todd (Amy Seimetz) to edit and publish Dickinson’s work after her death. Seimetz plays Mabel, marvelously, as an opportunistic and gossipy raconteur reconstructing her subject’s private life for personal gain. Along the way, this free-floating movie jumps back to Dickinson’s teenage years, where the flower of her love with Susan Gilbert first buds, and then forward to her adult years, where they carry on a clandestine relationship while trying to find a suitable publisher for Emily’s work.
In a brilliant casting coup, the adult Dickinson is played by Molly Shannon, the underrated “SNL” alumnus best known for developing the finger-sniffing outcast Mary Katherine Gallagher. Her Emily is sharp but pensive—chatty when excited but generally as stoic as the “American Gothic” model. Like an excellent silent-film star, her shifting facial expressions do most of the talking.
Yet the role is not a drastic departure from Shannon’s comedic bailiwick, because “Wild Nights With Emily” is a very funny film, even if not everybody is going to get it. The humor is so dry it’s practically Saharan. As with Whit Stillman’s highbrow comedies of manners, it’s best if you have an understanding of Ralph Waldo Emerson or “Wuthering Heights,” and if you appreciate the deadpan possibilities of the pregnant pause: Time and again, Olnick lets scenes play out a beat or two longer than another director would, savoring in the awkward silence.
Dickinson’s devotees will find even more to appreciate, as they discover the Easter eggs in Olnick’s script and savor the excerpts from her poems as they are recited aloud, or simply scroll along the bottom of the frame like subtitles, illuminating select moments. I’m sure I missed far too many of these subtleties, but the period’s overarching sense of gender inequity is as clear as a bulletproof glass ceiling. The only reason she published only 11 (edited, and in some cases re-written and “corrected”) poems during her lifetime is because of the phalanx of male gatekeepers who didn’t—couldn’t—appreciate her work.
In one of the movie’s best scenes, even Dickinson’s literary mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Brett Gelman), a theoretical advocate for equality of the sexes, can’t make head or tails of the writer’s unorthodox structure. Declining to publish her work in The Atlantic, his chief criticism is that when he reads it, “I’m left feeling … I’m not sure what.”
Ambiguity, of course, is now one of poetry’s most prized virtues, and even in a movie as comedic as “Wild Nights with Emily,” the rejection of her art stings, its posthumous acceptance be damned. A Dickinson line quoted in “A Quiet Passion” is apt here as well: “Posterity is as comfortless as God.”
As for Dickinson’s so-called reclusive asexuality? We don’t need to see Shannon and Susan Ziegler, as the adult Susan, make out to debunk this old saw: If even a fraction of the fulsome love poems she wrote were indeed indebted to her sister-in-law and dutiful next-door neighbor, we should consider this case closed.
“Wild Nights With Emily” opens today at Living Room Theaters at FAU and Lake Worth Playhouse’s Stonzek Theatre.