As much as Wild Nights with Emily is a funny and vibrant movie, it’s also predicated on more melancholy themes of how interpretations of history are often constructed through retroactive narratives. Madeleine Olnek’s film seeks to push back against the commonly held belief that Emily Dickinson (Molly Shannon) was a loner who communicated with a small number of distant acquaintances through sparse correspondence.
It instead highlights a theory posed through documents hidden by the posthumous discoverers of her writings: that she was close companions with her sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Gilbert (Susan Ziegler), and through letters and the deleted dedications on her poems, it’s very possible that they were in a romantic relationship.
This conception of Emily Dickinson is a woman of resolve and extraordinary energy. Her work is always on the cusp of breaking through, and she actively wishes to push it forward as much as it can. However, it’s only after her death that publishers like Mabel (Amy Seimetz) – often heard from in a framing device set during a public reading she hosts – bring her work to the public in meaningful ways. And it’s here that Olnek theorizes that people like Mabel began purposefully manipulating Dickinson’s biographical details and destroying correspondence to create a laser-precise posthumous version of her that was then accepted as factual.
Though this confident presentation of that argument renders Wild Nights with Emily a far cry from the still-uncertain scholarly consensus on these questions relating to Dickinson’s life, it also makes for an intriguing movie that reaches beyond its own plot and strives to comment on the nature of perceiving art itself. There’s a playfulness to it all, as the text of poems bursts onto the screen as characters read them aloud, and spritely classical compositions seem to accompany every physical motion.
It’s not a work of tight revisionism or specific historical criticism as much as it is a protest against the strictures that kept Dickinson from ever personally enjoying her work’s eventual success. And by depicting all indications of Dickinson and Gilbert’s relationship (letters, dedications in poems, etc.) being instinctually destroyed by others, Olnek depicts how, all throughout history, contemporaneous efforts to hide information about individuals still keep us from knowing the full story today.
There’s a point where this commentary on the massive scope of erasure feels underexplored; the question of whether a tonally light, 84-minute film can handle the structural burden of such a wide approach and whether its subject is undersold by the near-allegorical treatment allotted to her is worth asking. Yet what could have outright doomed a less confident film is mostly averted here, even when it feels like the script is moving a bit too quickly to represent the nuances of its main characters over the story’s multi-decade span.
Part of why it works is because of Olnek’s assured direction, and another big part is the stellar work from Shannon in the lead role. Her performance is decidedly measured, matching the movie’s argument of an artist who had a desire to share her work with the world and live with great resolve but lived in a time and place where neither quality was acknowledged for her as socially acceptable. Shannon’s work is complex, effervescent and knowing, matching Wild Nights with Emily’s stylistic approach and creating a fine synergy.
Scenes and acts alike move with a crispness that keeps things going at a consistent pace. Anna Stypko’s cinematography is bright and airy, telling us from frame one that this will diverge significantly from the dismal ideas of Dickinson that have preceded it in the cultural catalogue.
Wild Nights with Emily may not position itself as a key text on re-evaluating Emily Dickinson, but its commentary on the poet’s difficulties in gaining a recognition or narrative that she could directly appreciate carries a perpetual relevance, and the film makes its important points with a sense of humor that never feels flippant or inappropriate. This makes for an engaging watch through and through, as Olnek’s vision comes to life with the well-rounded capabilities of its poised cast and conscious creative foundations.