There’s a shade of Drunk History present within Wild Nights with Emily, in which you could just imagine some inebriated historian gushing about the real dirt on famed poet Emily Dickinson. She is played in this biopic by Molly Shannon in a manner that strives for a very tongue-in-cheek feeling, and the actor doesn’t have to try hard for a laugh—the humor comes directly from the earnest nature of this literary figure, hidden for decades. The film is compelling for its perspective on Dickinson and hilarious for its presentation of just how free she was behind closed doors.
Even in the more recent Dickinson biopic, A Quiet Passion, Dickinson has generally been viewed as a recluse. This familiar image of her has been painted for generations, thanks to people such as Mabel Loomis Todd (played here by Amy Seimetz), who edited the poet’s work after her demise. But a number of Dickinson’s writings discovered in the past few decades have revealed a much different character from the more refined figure you likely learned about in school. It turns out that her life was more akin to a steamy soap opera, punctuated with affairs and power struggles rather than mere quiet dignity.
In Wild Nights, it all stems from Emily’s passionate love for Susan (Susan Ziegler), a friend since childhood. As they grow up, the two experiment with kissing. Then more kissing. Then love letters written in the forms of poetry, some subtle and some blunt. Then more fooling around. Of course, their love is not meant to be—not in the open, anyway, in a world and a time that would look down on them (to put it mildly). So they conceal it behind closed doors and curtains, their relationship exploding in secret vivacious sessions. This is extra scandalous due to Susan having been married to Emily’s brother Austin and, even more exciting, the pair living right next to each other. How could they resist a quick pop over to the other’s house when the husband and kids are away?
But it gets even more interesting when taking into account Dickinson’s writing career. We watch as she is talked down to by others in her profession, from young blowhards to blithering old men, all criticizing her work on the grounds she’s not ready and should write much differently. The poet maintains her cool during these chats, but you can see a frustration in her eyes as she tries to remain firm in the fact of clearly buffoonish men who are either hard of hearing or oblivious to what’s in front of them. Shannon’s reactions are astounding despite how much she doesn’t say, letting all that irritation build up and unleashing it all in her time with Susan.
This type of film could’ve easily gone over the top, especially when you consider Austin Dickinson was himself having an affair with Mabel Todd, which adds another scandalous layer. But it always feels very sensible despite its silliness, letting the absurdity of a situation play out without the need for a loud comment and letting the audience feel both Dickinson’s bitterness and her amusement. It also helps that director Madeleine Olnek (who is gay herself) creates a light tone to it all to maintain a certain grace of the era while finding little nuggets of hilarity when applicable.
Wild Nights with Emily is well suited to be a revealing and rousing picture for anyone who found themselves bored by the common perception of Dickinson. It certainly would’ve made me a lot more interested in high school English to know that one of the most famous poets in history was secretly living out passionate affairs behind closed doors.