‘Wild Nights with Emily’ Theatrical Review
Wispy and fun and gay and historical and quaint and silly and light and bright and deep and somber and sensual and clever and deceitful and playful and bitter and touching and lovely and uplifting and fraught and sincere and concise and descriptive and meaningful. Any one of these words could be used to describe the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and luckily for us, any one of these words could be used to describe the film Wild Nights with Emily, written and directed masterfully by a shining Madeleine Olnek.
Full disclosure: I’ve never known much about Emily Dickinson at all – not her life, not her poetry. I am pretty positive she wrote some – some books or poems or short stories or something, and I know she did all that in like the 19th century when women wore Victorian dresses and weren’t allowed to do a lot of things on their own or at all, for that matter. I can’t remember which books were hers or which poems, and I am not going to make a guess, because I will probably mix her up with Charlotte Brontë or another Brontë, because I am also pretty positive there are two woman Brontë writers from the 19th century. My own failings in literature aside, on a superficial level, I do know Molly Shannon for certain, and if she is playing Emily Dickinson, count me eager to learn as much as she will allow about Emily Dickinson. And that is just what I’ve done.
The film is a frivolous jaunt into lesbianism, erasure, early feminist motifs, and of course the works and story of Emily Dickinson. The film is exciting and playful in a way that never lets the thematic elements feel forced or convoluted. Olnek uses touches of absurdity not to lighten the mood, but to keep the message grounded in the realities of life, no matter their seriousness. With a backdrop composed by intertwining poetry and contemporary notions of LGBTQ politics, this film creates a delicate flirtation between the personal and the political. The viewer gets the poignant and extremely personal story of Emily Dickinson, all the while being led towards one’s own conclusions about heteronormativity in the past or present conditions. The film is a stark reminder that the personal is political, no matter which historical moment is being used as the discursive vehicle.
The film’s technical side checks all the boxes in a way that doesn’t detract from the story. The film is very thematically driven even though the cinematography and acting (Molly Shannon and Susan Ziegler were delightful to name only two) are quite well done. They of course never take away from the film, but they also never add to it so intensely like other films, where the film-making itself becomes a major force in inferring a film’s themes. Wild Nights with Emily is very literary in that sense, in that the viewer is still able to paint so much of the picture themselves. The film by that measure, and with extreme self-awareness, is like the guiding light of poetry: there to create the boundaries of the path, but nothing more. So in that sense, maybe the film-making does serve as a thematic boost, if only in a meta sense, but it is a good look to say the least.
All in all, this film is a joy to watch and even more-so educational. I’ve learned about the life and times of Emily Dickinson in a way that creates a better understanding of all the ways in which she can be consumed. The film contextualizes her as a person so we can better understand one another. The film reminds us about the raw sensuality within poetry so we can engage with her poetry, and poetry in general, much more completely. The film even captures sexuality in such an honest and optimistic fashion that the implicit biases so present in contemporary life, at least for a time, shouldn’t bother any of us. Also – and I paused the movie to look this up so I wouldn’t feel so grotesque and blinded by privilege – there were three Brontë sisters, all novelists and poets. Emily Dickinson was none of them, but that shouldn’t bother any of us either.
Worth A Watch
The poet Emily Dickinson’s persona, popularized since her death, has been that of a reclusive spinster – a delicate wallflower, too sensitive for this world.