Madeleine Olnek’s latest comedy is about a poet, but it’s not really about poetry.
Instead, “Wild Nights with Emily,” which screened last night as the Milwaukee Film Festival’s centerpiece film, revisits the myths surrounding Emily Dickinson to assess how women have been perceived and misrepresented throughout American history.
If Walt Whitman is the great extrovert of American poetry, then Dickinson is its great introvert, an eccentric recluse too bashful to seek recognition for her sui generis verses. That’s the story handed down to generations of English majors, anyway. But Olnek challenges the entrenched image of Dickinson as virgin spinster in the movie’s opening sequence: The poet, played by Molly Shannon, shares an abrupt, clandestine, hilariously clumsy kiss with Susan Gilbert, her childhood friend, sister-in-law and next-door neighbor.
Shannon, best known for her pratfalls on “Saturday Night Live,” uses a subtler kind of physicality here, making Emily a cerebral yet sweet woman whose body cannot confine her passions and questions. (One morning she finds a scrap of poetry tangled inside of a hair snarl.) Susan is played by stage veteran Susan Ziegler, who delivers a warm, compelling portrait of devotion. Their chemistry animates the movie and detonates more than a century of Dickinson lore.
“Every poet has her muse,” Emily says to Susan, coquettishly defending the implications of poems like “I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed.” Susan—who, the film speculates, married Emily’s brother Austin only to remain close to her real love—cautions Emily that the 19th century isn’t equipped to comprehend such subtext. Nevertheless, she persists. Although it’s often very funny, “Wild Nights with Emily” makes the serious proposal that Dickinson enjoyed a fulfilling, lifelong romance that deeply influenced her poetry, the fact of which has been obscured for reasons related to puritanical fear, patriarchal bias against women writers and, perhaps, willful sabotage.
Might Olnek’s version of Dickinson have historical merit? Modern infrared technology has unshrouded the words posthumously erased from Dickinson’s original papers, and among the deletions were, indeed, numerous mentions of Susan. This obliteration was done over nine years by Mabel Loomis Todd, a family friend entrusted by Emily’s sister to organize, transcribe and edit the poems for publication. Todd, who also gave lectures that helped forge the “official” image of Dickinson, may have had twin motives for rubbing out Emily’s bond with Susan. First, Todd wanted to match Emily to the tastes of a public used to the safe artistry of, say, Helen Hunt Jackson (whose vanilla poetry is skewered in one of the movie’s funniest scenes). Second, Todd was for 13 years Austin’s mistress, and surely Austin had a family interest in concealing his sister’s relationship with his wife.
That probably makes “Wild Nights with Emily” sound like “The Real Housewives of Amherst,” but the movie is much less provocative than the title advertises. It’s an elegant, modest, sun-dappled affair filled with whites and greens and unremarkable camerawork. Olnek’s overformal style, however, is perhaps the movie’s finest gag, turning most of the scenes into deadpan parodies of traditional costume dramas. Lampooned specifically are the Merchant Ivory brand (“A Room with a View,” “The Remains of the Day”) and Terence Davies’ “A Quiet Passion,” an acclaimed drama from last year that starred Cynthia Nixon as, uh, Emily Dickinson.
The existence of Davies’ film—which is far more methodical and mannered than “Wild Nights with Emily,” but equally revisionist—points to how some of Olnek’s assertions aren’t exactly novel. I speak from experience: For nearly two decades, I’ve taught my American literature students that it’s unfair to characterize Dickinson as a lonely hermit. Still, by working in a comic register, Olnek has uniquely positioned her film to both restore Emily’s full range of happiness and destroy any fraudulence in her biographies. After all, lies lose their grip once we’ve laughed at them.
I’m unconvinced, though, that laughter can justify the way Olnek treats her supporting characters as objects of ridicule. Mabel Todd, for example, is presented as a shameless opportunist, while Austin Dickinson remains a clueless toady. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, editor of “The Atlantic Monthly,” resorts to insufferable mansplaining while telling Emily she isn’t ready for publication. Ralph Waldo Emerson even briefly appears, but the philosopher poet only mumbles unintelligibly. Each of these choices are humorous, and each help express how Emily feels obstructed as she seeks public validation of her true self. But how can Olnek castigate the historical distortion of Emily Dickinson while reducing other historical figures to a single cartoonish trait?
There’s also something slippery about the way Olnek plunders Dickinson’s lyrics for out-of-context recitations, including a few stanzas from “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” set, amusingly, to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Many of her best-known poems are cherry-picked for inclusion, but there was no room, apparently, for “Fame Is a Fickle Food,” “Success Is Counted Sweetest” and “This Is My Letter to the World,” three poems that suggest Dickinson may have been deeply ambivalent about being in the public eye and not quite the enthusiastic chaser of immortality that Olnek describes.
“Wild Nights with Emily” is an enjoyable, well-crafted comedy with careful performances and timely ideas about hearing the voices of women. But it also signals how impossible it is to ever truly know a public figure. Does the movie correct or confuse the record? Who can say except for Emily Dickinson?
The Milwaukee Film Festival started Oct. 18 and runs through Thursday. The full lineup plus ticket and venue information are online at mkefilm.org.