Starring Molly Shannon. Rating unavailable
Some artists get to shape their own destinies. Others have it shaped for them by their brother’s opportunistic mistresses who’ve never even met them! That’s the cheeky yet fact-based premise of Wild Nights With Emily, which succeeds in upending the conventional image of poet Emily Dickinson—now deemed as influential as Walt Whitman was in his time—as a dour spinster who got no pleasure out of life.
There’s plenty of fun to be had with SNL veteran Molly Shannon as the least comic element of a boldly revisionist take that somehow hews closer to Drunk History than to Masterpiece Theatre, while still ringing true. Writer-director Madeleine Olnek cares a great deal about the Bard of Amherst’s words—reproduced on-screen in a delightful variety of settings—but pretty much everything else is up for grabs. There’s a low-budget attempt to dress the New England homes and people in antebellum styles, but even these are exaggerated to underline an environment that stifled a woman’s work, not to mention her sexuality.
The main revelation here is Emily’s lifelong friendship, and more, with neighbour and eventual sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, played mostly by Susan Ziegler, also in Olnek’s previous films. They are also glimpsed as adolescent lovers, in the form of actors who look nothing like them and are 30 years younger (not the two-decade jump the movie titles mention). But this disjuncture does little to dispel the brisk movie’s essentially playful mood.
Quietly stealing the show, fittingly enough, is The Girlfriend Experience’s Amy Seimetz, as Mabel Todd, who gradually hooks up with Emily’s brother Austin (a very funny Kevin Seal) after he accepts that wife Susan brooks marital sex only for procreation. After the poet’s death, at age 55, it is Mabel who will tour book clubs and ladies’ luncheons to extol the old-maid-with-secrets version of Dickinson’s life, while the movie posits that she and Austin agreed to erase Susan’s name from the passionate letters Emily wrote. “Sweet of twigs and twine”, Sue Gilbert was her “perennial nest”. Hope was not the only thing with feathers.