Wild Nights with Emily ends with the quote, “Notions persist to this day of Emily Dickinson as a spinster old maid who was afraid to leave her room or publish her work.” But what writer-director Madeleine Olnek triumphs in producing is a revisionist take on the poet—one that portrays her in a gayer light.
Immediately, the film pokes fun at Dickinson’s more common reputation by having her engage in a comedically executed makeout session with her brother’s wife, Susan. Its buoyant tone and queer narrative are thus established, as the film begins its dive into the relationship between Dickinson and her childhood friend and sister-in-law.
Olnek pens a story that is refreshing for the genre. It’s not melancholy or narratively conflict-heavy as most queer stories are—it’s a comedy. Olnek explores the romance between Emily and Susan from their time as young girls (played by Dana Melanie and Sasha Forlova, respectively), whose feelings for one another are made clear with subtlety as they exchange Benedick and Beatrice’s “I love yous” in a performance of Much Ado About Nothing, and through adulthood (played by Molly Shannon and Susan Ziegler) with discretion and many moments spent hilariously darting from house to house adjusting their bloomers. This is a love that Dickinson intricately weaved into her poetry, and Olnek treats it with care, but also delivers it with playfulness and encases it in imagery that is beautifully poetic.
Something else that Olnek manages to do brilliantly is have the story told singularly through two perspectives. The first, of course, is Dickinson and Susan themselves, through letters and poetry. But the second is equally as interesting: it’s from the perspective of Mabel Loomis Todd, Dickinson’s first posthumous editor. Todd’s telling represents the gossipy inaccuracy that tends to follow renowned figures throughout their life and death, and in Dickinson’s case, one that the film aims to dismiss.
While at times Wild Nights with Emily tends to pay too much attention to its side characters, in the end, it’s Shannon and Ziegler’s show, and both play off each other perfectly and with tenderness. Olnek proves why queer filmmakers should be telling queer stories, as she not only achieves what the film sets out to do but also manages to write the best dialogue in any film so far this year.
Male publishers had no faith in Dickinson’s work because her poems were unrhythmic, but she proved that the unconventional is often best, just as Olnek has done with this queer comedy.
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