Wild Nights with Emily sounds like a film about a rebellious teen who spends her nights at raves and overnight orgies. It is not. Wild Nights with Emily, which was released on DVD and other home-viewing formats this month, is an unusual independent feature film about Emily Dickinson, whom we grew up knowing as a prim recluse, a spinster-poet who didn’t socialize or have a very real passionate love in her lifetime, a woman who wrote of death and immortality. It certainly is true that she was a homebody. She hid many of her works even from her family, and only a small portion of her 1800 poems were published during her lifetime.
The more recently explored view of Dickinson’s life is far removed from that stereotypical view perpetuated by William Luce’s play The Belle of Amherst and by so many scholars and other authors. The loner label that was laid on Dickinson seems to date back to an exaggerated view of the poet, conceived by Dickinson’s brother’s lover, Mabel Loomis Todd, who became the poet’s first significant editor and adapter posthumously. Among other misdeeds, Todd actually had the gall to erase the name of a beloved woman from a number of her poems. Modern scientific techniques show that Todd erased the parts of Dickinson’s poems that she found objectionable, that were possibly not marketable to the American public of the late 1800s.
Along comes this new feature film, written and directed by Madeleine Olnek, and starring Molly Shannon, which blasts the idea of the virginal spinster. Instead, the screenplay presents the poet as having had passionate lesbian affairs with more than one woman, paticularly with a woman named Susan Gilbert Dickinson, her dearest childhood friend who became her sister-in-law. This interpretation is different from the 2017 biographical film by Terence Davies called A Quiet Passion starring Cynthia Nixon. While Wild Nights is firm in its decision to convey a full-blown mature love affair between the women, there are some who believe that the relationship actually was a particular type of nineteenth century schoolgirl crush.
Despite its title, Wild Nights with Emily is not a skin flick. The raw sex scenes are only implied, but all that is shown is scene after scene of passionate smooching. If you are wondering why a comedienne like Molly Shannon was chosen to play Dickinson, part of the answer is that Olnek has a special appreciation for Shannon’s acting talents, and part of the reason is the light tone of the film – not a heavy drama about a frustrated loner, but a drama/comedy about Dickinson’s daily life, her occasional encounters with editors and other literary figures of the period, and her inexhaustible obsession for writing.
The script takes occasional jabs at published authors who were contemporaries of Dickinson. One brief sequence derides the childlike rhyming of commercially successful writer Helen Hunt Jackson, a fellow Amherst MA resident. It provides a humorous moment, but the bottom line is that Hunt Jackson wrote for low-to-middle brow masses, and Emily Dickinson’s poems are complex and cerebral.
Wild Nights with Emily is at times a bit highbrow. Words from her poetry flash across the screen, and I had to freeze the frame give myself time to grasp the meanings. The film has a choppy feeling to it, and sometimes a character comes and goes too quickly for any bonding to be had between film and viewer. Still, it is quirky in an amusing way, and gives the audience a chance to see Emily Dickinson in a new and little bit brighter light.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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