Growing up I was always that kid reading and writing (go figure that I now run a site I can talk all I want) so of course I knew Emily Dickinson. I also was a fan of old school SNL, so I also am a fan of Molly Shannon. Imagine my surprise to see that those worlds collided with Molly Shannon in a film where she portrays Emily Dickinson! It is especially weird when for the most part Wild Nights with Emily is meant to be serious and to highlight the falsehoods about her, including clarifying that she was actually a lesbian. All very interesting to me, so I had to see it, and now I’m glad to tell you guys about it.
So Wild Nights with Emily actually follows the prolific poet from childhood, with her long time friend and lover Susan (Susan Ziegler) who actually ends up her sister in law. Its interesting as they fall in love at an early age, but know they must hide it. So when Emily’s brother falls for Susan and wishes to marry her Susan took it as an opportunity to find security and to stay close to Emily. As they live their lives they continue their secret romance, even as Susan has children, and Emily furthers her poetry even though it doesn’t align with the expectations of the time.
Quite honestly, I have to say that I was delighted with Wild Nights with Emily by the end of it. That is in large because of the performances as well as the direction. When I said I was surprised its not a comedy, that’s because as much as I like Molly Shannon I’d never seen her perform truly serious. Yes, there is comedy here, quite a bit of it actually, but its a lot dryer comedy than some of her past work and it balances the realism it goes up against. I was quite happy with that since it starts off in a way that I was more concerned what I got myself in to. Writer Director Madeleine Olnek really builds a cast that can walk that line and really shines in both cases. It still hits a fair amount of issues though. Some with pacing, some with imbalanced scene ideas where poetry is read and then done like a music video for the poem while others aren’t. I also still had an issue getting a read some times if the film really wanted to be serious or comedic, especially considering the subject.
Speaking of the cast, there are a few to really shine a light on in this case. I’ve already touched on Shannon, but she really does help drive this film and also brings some great levity to some of the absurdity of some of the issues with the culture of this time period that we only realize more now. Ziegler as well is such a major part of this film, and truly is a joy with her wonderful performance bouncing off Shannon as well as the actions of the rest of the cast. The film also features Brett Gelman, whom I’m a big fan of, and he portrays a publisher who turns down Dickinson, but he also gets some of the funniest scenes. He is used for a showing of an institutional racism and sexism, where it is shown to both be the most normal thing for that time period but also so totally absurd. He really is great each time he is on screen. Lastly I’d like to mention Amy Seimetz as Mabel Loomis Todd. Mabel is the closest the film gets to a villain, and that is largely because she is seeking fame, and does try to get it through Emily, including finally doing so through getting her work published. Seimetz is wonderful as the character as she almost has soap opera levels of commitment to that aspiration both comes off earnest but also comical as intended, and its a real pleasure.
Classic literary figures can be funny too, damn it! And Wild Nights With Emily does a good job of showing that, while also showcasing the human being that was Emily Dickinson. I definitely think if you care about the history of Emily Dickinson then its worth a watch. I also have to say that when its funny, it is frequently hilariously clever and I kind of love that. But there’s still enough issues with it that I can’t say its for everyone, and maybe not a fully price ticket.