REVIEW: Wild Nights with Emily [2019]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 84 minutes
    Release Date: April 19th, 2019 (USA)
    Studio: Greenwich Entertainment
    Director(s): Madeleine Olnek
    Writer(s): Madeleine Olnek

Sue, forevermore.

As evidenced by her poetry and letters, the reclusive spinster Emily Dickinson proves anything but. Through them we learn of her struggles to get published, the rejections endured, and a love shared with her sister-in-law Susan. Why then was the former thought process how we were told to consider her life? Because those lies were better suited to the mythic status one would manufacture as publicity to garner posthumous acclaim. Mabel Todd erased Sue’s name from Emily’s love correspondence (proven via spectrographic technology) and created a legend that would position herself as the poet’s true champion. “Finding” the poetry Dickinson “hid” before working tirelessly to bring it to the world had more allure for Todd’s own purposes than admitting supposed experts had already deemed it unworthy of praise.

Rather than create a drama portraying these truths in a way that colors Todd as a villain, however, writer/director Madeleine Olnek uses Wild Nights with Emily to project Dickinson’s life through a comedic lens of what those truths reveal. Was Todd arguably little more than an opportunist? Maybe. But she is also the one who collected the work and got it shown to the public. Olnek thus uses her as a cipher of sorts to put the patriarchal norms of who Emily “should” have been on-screen opposite who she actually was. Todd (Amy Seimetz) becomes a narrator of that aforementioned myth while the Dickinsons (Molly Shannon‘s Emily and Susan Ziegler‘s Susan) can be shown removed from it as the lovers it has been inferred they were.

In order to make these parallel trajectories work in tandem as a means to expose the era for its transgressions rather than the women themselves, Olnek orchestrates a broadly theatrical aesthetic. Think “Drunk History” but filtered by sarcasm instead of alcohol. Todd is therefore introduced as a self-importantly haughty orator propping up her own part in Dickinson’s acclaim at the work’s detriment—explaining the candid details of a woman who refused to ever meet her due to awkward shyness while Olnek cuts to the more believable comedy of errors wherein Emily tried and failed due to Mabel’s elicit affair with her brother (and Susan’s husband) Austin (Kevin Seal) downstairs. We laugh at the woman’s audacity and laugh again at reality’s satire of conservatism at its most absurd.

As such, the film does carry with it a tone one could say is an acquired taste. I personally enjoy the exploits of and ideas behind “Drunk History” while also finding it difficult to watch more than an episode’s length of twenty-two minutes at a time. At a certain point the gimmick becomes more important than the information shared and in turn my enjoyment level wanes until it’s replaced by fatigue. I found this happening throughout Olnek’s film because there’s no escaping the device. That air of fabrication looms above everything so you can’t help but wonder if the facts themselves are jokes not to be taken seriously. Just as the tone ensures many crucial points will stick in our memory, it also tends to minimize the veracity.

Watching men like Austin and the publisher who dismissed Emily’s work for its sophistication (Brett Gelman‘s Colonel Higginson)—a point directly in line with an anecdote about Dickinson’s father saying no one would ever marry his daughter because no man wants a wife cleverer than himself—is absolutely delightful (more so when considering what was happening directly under everyone’s inflated heads’ noses). And the relish with which Seimetz plays Mabel’s con artist is equally hilarious. I simply wonder if this overt humor diminishes the historical context by turning everything into a lark. The closing text that provides details to confirm the film’s reliability thus becomes absolutely necessary to remind audiences that liberties weren’t taken to augment laughter at the facts’ expense. It might be too late for some.

Regardless of personal preference, however, it’s impossible not to appreciate the merit of Olnek’s choices if for no other reason than making this revelatory coming out party a joyous occasion instead of another stuffy period piece unable to get out from underneath its own self-importance. The way she’s able to provide history while simultaneously lambasting it takes a deft hand whether or not you appreciate the way in which she does so without reservation. And the casting of Shannon proves a monumental win since the actor has always been one to wear her palpable disdain on her face when confronting idiots. Her Emily’s interactions with Austin and Higginson are master classes of making an adversary acknowledge his deficiencies while still working out how to pretend he hasn’t.

Ziegler delivers a worthy counterpart to push the action forward as Susan; Jackie Monahan‘s Lavinia (Emily’s sister) is beautifully naïve as an innocent foil to them both; and Dana Melanie and Sasha Frolova (as young Emily and Susan respectively) arrive more often than you might expect to drive home the idea that them being sister-in-laws was a keenly calculated decision to maintain close proximity and excuse any prolonged visits. The ensemble’s character dynamics are therefore what truly shine since the comedy toes such a thin line between intentional and unintentional laughter. One wrong performance and you’re left on the outside looking in very early. Authenticity must then exist beneath the otherwise heightened atmosphere to maintain the precarious foundation necessary for our investment to matter beyond mere frivolous distraction.

[1] Emily (Molly Shannon) thinking at her desk – WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY – Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment
[2] Mabel (Amy Seimetz) and Austin (Kevin Seal) riding in a carriage – WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY – Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment
[3] Emily (Molly Shannon) and Susan (Susan Ziegler) reading in the kitchen – WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY – Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

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