Dearest Xpress readers,
I am writing you to spread the word about the new divinely sardonic mockumentary biopic, Wild Nights with Emily, which unveils the vivacious secret life of Emily Dickinson as told through her private letters to her lifelong lover — a woman (gasp!) named Susan.
Director and playwright Madeleine Olnek (Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same) has masterfully adapted this true story from stage to screen, using Emily’s actual handwritten letters and Molly Shannon as the unforgettable lead. No longer the infamously hysterical agoraphobic spinster we all incorrectly know her to be, Emily is reinstated as a bold, warm, queer and altogether quirky literary figure.
She fervently writes poems on the backs of bread recipes, stashes copies of her work in her bustle and her hair, and scurries between houses — bloomers in hand — fresh from a passionate afternoon frolic with her childhood best friend turned sister-in-law turned next door neighbor, Susan Dickinson (wisely portrayed by Susan Ziegler of Hello, My Name Is Doris). She loves deeply and unabashedly, and has the endless love letters addressing Sue, her “Siren” and “Centre” to prove it.
Though a slew of homophobic, panic-stricken historians have managed to scrub this vital part of Emily’s identity away, Wild Nights takes care to highlight this truth with a rare brand of comedic reverence. Using the brilliant framework of a celebrity tell-all book-reading, Olnek places one of Emily’s most flagrant offenders front and center: Mrs. Mabel Todd (played with fabulous abandon by Amy Seimetz). She serves as our gossipy, unreliable narrator, the self-annointed first editor of Emily’s poetry and the flighty mistress of Emily’s brother Austin. Enraged with jealousy at the sight of Susan’s name in a heap of wildly romantic love letters, we watch as Mabel physically erases it and, thus, their brazen lesbian love story. Her actions create the legend of the meek, unlovable, unpublishable recluse Emily Dickinson that we still cling to today.
Fear not, though! This isn’t a stuffy dramatic period piece, nor is it a slapstick reimagining of the author’s life, but a comedic exhumation of her genuine nature. It shines a spotlight on the grave injustices historians and editors have inflicted upon her — by shrouding her persona in mystery and mental illness, and burying her queerness with sanitized rewrites — through the use of surprising wit, charm and delightful irreverence. It effectively pokes fun at the seriousness surrounding her poetry, often employing the characters to dumbfoundedly question their meaning, comment on the lack of rhyme scheme and verbally deride her words with perfectly campy execution. Emily’s historically dense poetry comes alive on screen as her words turn into cinematic experiences, leaving the audience to see, understand and, most importantly, feel Emily’s intentions.
Also on display are multiple hushed extramarital affairs, love in all of its awkward iterations, as well as a painstaking encounter with the age-old art of mansplaining, courtesy of Brett Gelman’s laughably inflated, drunk-on-his-own-prestige Atlantic Monthly editor, Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The film smartly explores the sheer agony of women’s authorship (masculine pen names with oddly feminine handwriting, anyone?), the politely cutthroat politics of the publishing world (hundreds of rejected poems citing her work as “devoid of true poetical qualities”) and one blissfully unaware crazy cat lady to boot.
Wild Nights with Emily will make you question the literary canonical powers-that-be and warn you of the dangers of myth, all while making you chuckle at the undisputed absurdity of the era. It is cheeky, fearless and undoubtedly the funniest portrayal of Emily Dickinson you’ll ever see. It will forever change your opinion of the famed poet — and rightfully so. She was an active participant in her life, her writings and her allure. She was extraordinarily prolific (completing over 2,000 poems and letters before her death), eager in her hopeful quest for publication and self-expression and was all but entirely derailed by the cowardly tastemakers of her time and ours, until now.
I began the film with a certain kind of indescribable unease toward her poetry and reputation, but finished it with a clear understanding of her life’s story, deep affection for her and genuinely renewed interest in her work. I am now a convert, a fan, an Emily Dickinson truther — and you should be, too! So, get to the theater post haste and see what all the poetic fuss is about.
With sincerest cinematic urgency,