Forget what you know about poet Emily Dickinson. She was not a lonely recluse confined to her bedroom. Yes, she never married but that was only because she was in love with her brother’s wife Susan (the two were lovers since their youth) and while only 11 of her 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime, it was not because she didn’t want people to read her work.
Writer-director Madeleine Olnek dispels those inaccuracies in “Wild Nights with Emily” starring Molly Shannon as the celebrated poet and Susan Ziegler as her beloved sister-in-law. The film starts off slowly but eventually takes off with plenty of humor and first-rate performances by the great cast.
After premiering at SXSW, “Wild Nights” hits theaters starring the wonderful Shannon, whose post-SNL life seems more reclusive than that of Emily Dickinson. The 54-year old actress who created such memorable characters as Sally O’Malley and Mary Katherine Gallagher which led to the feature film “Superstar” in 1999, has a filmography of steady work but she didn’t go on to receive the same acclaim as other SNL alumni, despite superb performances in films that include “Other People” and last year’s “Private Life” with her “American Splendor” costar Paul Giamatti. BTW, I miss those NPR sketches with Shannon, they were the best!
Shannon went on to prove herself as a dramatic actress starting with Mike White’s 2007 film “Year of the Dog,” but here she’s reverting to SNL days playing Emily Dickinson by incorporating her signature deadpan humor. Too many times women are portrayed by men as frail little creatures scared of their own shadows, like Emily Dickinson, when in fact she had a great sense of humor and only avoided people she didn’t like.
That brings us to Mabel Loomis Todd (Amy Seimetz), the mistress of Emily’s brother Austin (Kevin Seal), who was married to Emily’s lover and best friend Susan (Susan Ziegler). Mabel became known for posthumously publishing Emily’s letters and poems which she edited as she saw fit, even erasing all mention of Susan from the letters Emily wrote to her lover. Mabel is also credited as the person responsible for portraying Emily as a recluse because she never met the poet and that’s only because Emily avoided her at all costs. In 1914, a book of Emily’s poems, dedicated to the love between Susan and Emily was published by Susan’s daughter.
Olnek pushes the LGBTQ theme with Emily and Susan’s relationship and then later in the film Emily has a tryst with The Widow Kate played by Allison Lane. It doesn’t materialize into anything significant, her heart belonged to Susan, but Emily did write letters to Kate which were discovered in 1951 by a scholar who wrote a book about their affair.
“Wild Nights with Emily” is very funny. Jackie Monahan as Emily’s sister Lavina who has a penchant for cats, even dead ones, is hilarious. She steals many of her scenes. The spirited script by writer-director Madeleine Olnek is filled with wit and enough humor to keep this in the comedy zone while presenting the truth about the beloved poet who has been falsely represented as a reclusive introvert. As Mary Katherine Gallagher would say, “Total, Total Insanity.”
(3 ½ stars)
Opens April 26th at Edwards Greenway Grand Palace 24 in Houston.