Molly Shannon and Amy Seimetz shine in this warm, tender, humanizing portrayal of the famously enigmatic poet.
As a rule of thumb, it’s not advisable to view the sexuality of historical figures in the same paradigm that we would use to view the sexuality of modern people. While it may be easy to assume that the current labels we use for sexual orientation are natural and universal, these labels are actually dependent on a specific culture’s view of gender and societal roles. However, while the idea of orientation is in itself a social construct, the physical and emotional desires that constitute sexual orientation are a constant in the human condition. While Madeleine Olnek’s filmWild Nights With Emily often uses contemporary views on sexual orientation for American poet Emily Dickinson, the film’s humor and tenderness make watching it a universal experience.
Dickinson is often portrayed as a sexless oddball; a dispassionate and reclusive spinster who used her poetry as a replacement for companionship. In Wild Nights With Emily, she is portrayed as a spirited woman who uses poetry as a chronicle of her life, not a replacement for it. The film is told in flashback, as Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz), Dickinson’s first editor, is giving a reading to an enraptured audience. As Mabel tells the audience about Emily’s life, her sanitized version is contrasted by the true story.
The flashback begins, appropriately enough, in Emily’s youth. Young Emily (Dana Melanie, later played as an adult by Molly Shannon) interacts and falls in love with Susan Gilbert (Sasha Frolova, later by Susan Ziegler) during a reading of Shakespeare. The pair cement their relationship when Susan keeps Emily company while her father and family are away on business. To keep herself close to Emily, Susan agrees to marry Emily’s brother, Austin (John Pena Griswold, later by Kevin Seal). The film then flits between Mabel’s reading and scenes of Emily and Susan’s affair, as well as Emily’s quest to gain literary recognition and Mabel’s affair with Austin that leads to Mabel being the executor of Emily’s literary estate.
A major theme of the film is societal repression of true feelings, and this theme is mostly conveyed through the cast’s offputting, but charming, performances. With the exception of Shannon and Ziegler’s natural romantic chemistry, the rest of the casts’ interactions are awkward and stilted. The actors deliver their lines either with overcalculated energy, or they respond to other characters’ emotional pleas with a deadpan reply. This creates a style of humor that is like a softer version of cringe comedy; many scenes are filled with an awkwardness that is hilarious but lacks the unbearable second-hand embarrassment that often comes with strained social situations.
In contrast with the discomfort of 19th-century social life are the scenes that visualize Dickinson’s poetry. While much of the movie aims for realism, the poetry gives the film a light surreality. Olnek uses multiple techniques to convey the poems: Emily directly reciting poetry to the camera, the cast singing the poems to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas”, or metaphorical scenes that represent the poem. Each time a poem is recited, the text is displayed onscreen for the audience to appreciate. The most striking scene of poetry is when Emily recites “Poem 252” (I Can wade grief…), which has multiple characters crying in rivers as Susan drinks a bottle of liquor. It’s dreamlike and gorgeous and helps augment Shannon’s exquisite recitation.
These beautiful scenes of Dickinson’s poetry make the irony that she was unappreciated in her own time all the more poignant. While the film depicts many scenes of Emily being rejected by the literary establishment, the most prominent is her interaction with poetry editor, Thomas Higginson (Brett Gelman). Higginson is portrayed as the (literally) prototypical “fake male ally”: an abolitionist who distributed pamphlets to free the slaves….in free Boston; a suffragist who thinks that women should get the vote….once politics become “devoid of harshness”; and a literary champion of women who always publishes women writers he enjoys….because “there are so few of them”. Gelman’s pompous and condescending portrayal of Higginson is hilarious, but much of the humor is tempered by the frustration that a person of such great literary renown can fail to see Emily’s obvious genius.
Emily is portrayed as a spirited woman who uses poetry as a chronicle of her life, not a replacement for it.
Wild Nights With Emily’s greatest triumph is showing society’s queer erasure and the duality of queer life, and the film is filled with the contrast between public and private life. While Mabel’s discussion of Emily are filled with sensationalism and speculation, the scenes that show Emily and Susan’s relationship are realistic. While the couple is passionate and physical, their passion is often tempered in a way that is common with long term couples. Commendably, the film also doesn’t wallow in sadness over the unfairness of the 19th-Century’s homophobia. Emily and Susan have to deal with the prejudices of their time, but the film, fortunately, avoids feeling like a melodramatic message film.
Indeed, the film only comes close to feeling on the nose once, when Susan’s adult daughter, Martha, is giving a lecture on her aunt. While Mabel’s lecture (which insinuates that Emily was in love with an elderly judge!) is given to a full house, Martha’s lecture (which is open about their relationship) only attracts three guests. While this makes the message of the film clear, the scene still doesn’t feel preachy.
While it would be problematic to give Emily Dickinson a posthumous label on her orientation, the film does give a good justification on why we need to be honest with her likely sapphic relationship with Susan. The film ends with a split screen of Susan washing Emily’s corpse while Mabel erases mentions of Susan from Emily’s more passionate letters. This scene perfectly encapsulates the erasure of queer desire and queer people from mainstream discourse. Our society may have words to describe people who fall out of sexual and gender norms but will hide those labels to make LGBT+ people more palatable to the mainstream. The only way to fight back is for artists to make the truth plain.