Terence Davies did a fine job writing and directing “A Quiet Passion,” a biopic about the life of the late poet Emily Dickinson, whose legacy has been shrouded in a blanket of tales about chronic pain, unrequited love, and a generally dismal existence of literary obscurity. The accepted story of Dickinson and the one Davies stuck with is that she toiled in solitary self-confinement, refusing to see visitors. But in “Wild Nights With Emily,” writer-director Madeleine Olnek proffers an alternative — and perhaps much more truthful — history of this iconic lesbian of literature: What if Emily actually had fun?
With a tone evocative of “Drunk History,” the film approaches storytelling with a whimsical air, where period authenticity of every object and costume isn’t necessarily the focus. They filmed in Los Angeles (at the Heritage Square Museum), so Olnek clearly had to contend with harsher SoCal natural light than Dickinson would have had in New England, but that too-bright lighting, both indoors and outside, becomes innocuous.
The tone and the visibly low budget are, at first, jarring: Is this a light comedy? But Olnek’s script, which she’d honed over a number of theatrical productions, becomes the rock of this film, allowing the actors to wildly shift from one-liners to poignant heartbreak.
Molly Shannon plays Emily as an anxious, but kind-hearted writer who doesn’t so much rebel against the patriarchy as she simply butts her head into it again and again, asking “yeah, but why” until the men retreat. Some of the film’s greatest humor comes from Shannon playing Emily not for laughs, but with ultimate sincerity. Olnek often lets these scenes play out mercifully sans music, relishing the discomfort of characters who realistically would have been quite bored by all the sitting and talking.
In one scene in a sitting-room parlor, Emily is straining to listen to her elderly male guest, who doesn’t even remember her name. She leans forward, squinting like she’s trying to comprehend some cruel joke, but she is ultimately polite, if confused. Meanwhile, her brother Austin (Kevin Seal, “Laggies”) is speculating that the old man may be courting Emily; he’s so preoccupied by his assumption that Emily needs a man, any man, that he doesn’t realize that Emily’s already in a loving relationship — with his own wife, Susan (Susan Ziegler).
Clearly, a great deal of research went into crafting this story, which is as much about Dickinson’s life as it is about how her legacy came to be so corrupted. To convey that these events happened as depicted in the film, Olnek deploys a kind of narrator device, with Amy Seimetz’s opportunist Mabel Loomis Todd addressing a book club and answering questions after Emily’s death. Todd, as the story goes, was the “editor” who “found” Dickinson’s trove of 1,800 poems after Dickinson’s death and decided to heavily edit and then publish them. It’s also Mabel’s accounts of (non)interaction with Dickinson that have survived and formed the folklore of this lonely, reclusive woman, despite the fact that Mabel’s perceptions of Emily were likely colored by her own affair with Dickinson’s brother.
The film kindly makes this hypocrisy clear, painting Mabel not as a villain, but as a woman with a malleable sense of the truth. Still, it’s the sendup of the male characters, dim-witted and high on themselves, that draws the biggest laughs. Brett Gelman plays The Atlantic editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who visits Emily to tell her that her poems are inscrutable and that he shan’t be publishing them. Dickinson doesn’t fight with him, but she does pace the room, eager for an intellectual connection, equivocating for a time-lapse of, likely, hours about her thoughts on the written word. Thomas is shell-shocked. Emily, again, gives that squinty look, and it’s a perfect encapsulation of male-female non-communication.
Jutting into the narrative are Dickinson’s actual poems, read by Shannon’s Emily, often as a disembodied head speaking directly to the camera. Not everyone dares to read or try to understand poetry, but with the context of this humorous film, one can easily see the wit in Dickinson’s verse. Her poems may be full of dashes, and they may not rhyme, but they are often stinging and funny once you get them. The film is often so light, occasionally hitting upon screwball themes as Dickinson and Susan try to keep their love affair even marginally secret, that I was not prepared for such a touching conclusion that left me teary-eyed, not for its tragedy but for the depiction of a love so full and enduring.
There are so many reasons to adore “Wild Nights With Emily,” but the top may be Olnek’s refusal to adhere to the accepted history. It is as though our culture cannot imagine that queer people could possibly feel an easy joy with their romantic partner, that their lives must have been bereft without all those glorious heterosexual pleasures. The same goes for women who don’t marry, whether hetero or queer. The culture must imagine them as sad and exploit their supposed tragedy. Olnek instead depicts a woman who loved and was loved, and who felt annoyed, ebullient, impatient, and, above all, full of life.