All of a sudden, there is an unexpected resurgence of interest in the work of Emily Dickinson within pop culture. Two years ago, Terrence Davies released his long gestating passion project A Quiet Passion, which seems to have initiated a newfound interest into digging deep into the poet’s life, beyond the oft-repeated claims that she was a recluse with limited success while alive. Apple launched their new streaming service with Dickinson, a blackly comic teen drama that imagines the poet’s younger years as an alienated, struggling writer that’s far closer to a comedy like Booksmart than a stuffy biopic.
A similarly comedic approach to upturning historical assumptions about Dickinson’s life can be found within Wild Nights with Emily, which aims to dispel the myth that Emily Dickinson was an unloved recluse for the entirety of her life. Of course, there’s some truth to that claim that director Madeleine Olnek acknowledges; she was very much the black sheep of her family, and her work failed to set the world on fire. But this is a film aiming to dig beneath the poet’s mythic status to find something truthful – and in the process, tells a charming and quietly moving love story that is all the more effective because it delivers care and affection to a figure we were led to believe lived her whole life without either.
The backbone of the drama is the relationship between Emily (played by Dana Melanie in her younger years, and by the wonderful Molly Shannon when she’s older) and Susan (Sasha Frolova/Susan Ziegler), and the relationship they kept a secret for decades. Starting from when they fell in love as actresses in a Shakespeare production, we chart their partnership through the years, only growing stronger after Susan marries Emily’s brother and builds a house next door to hers. Many of Emily’s untitled poems are addressed to Susan, who is named specifically in many, which causes confusion to the few people who read the works; editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson ( Fleabag’s Brett Gelman) even goes as far to tell her that the poems need work because of a female perspective that’s baffling to him.
The most refreshing thing about Wild Nights with Emily is that, although the central relationship remains a secret throughout, we get to see an earnest love unburdened by prejudice from the wider world. It’s far less anachronistic than Apple TV’s stab at a Dickinson biopic, but it does prioritise gentle, somewhat whimsical laughs over higher dramatic stakes at every opportunity. In most films, this would be something of a burden. Here, because director Madeleine Olnek is aiming to explore the rich love life of a poet known largely for her misery and solitude, any adversity she faced throughout her life is firmly a peripheral matter. It’s integral to who she is, but it’s far from the single defining factor in our understanding of her work.
As the film progresses, we are introduced to Mabel (Amy Seimetz) the woman with whom Emily’s brother Austin is having an affair. She’s a secondary character within Emily’s life, and yet incredibly important to our understanding of how the wider world came to perceive her the way she did; painting a picture of Emily as a recluse, and posthumously editing her poems to erase any traces of her sexuality. She gave Emily the platform she’d always dreamed of, but via compromising the meaning of her work, and erasing her own identity in the process. It may be a light comedy drama, but I expect Wild Nights with Emily to be screened to classes whenever Dickinson’s poems are on the curriculum – it enhances understanding of the work by simply humanising the woman behind it, and challenging our perception of her.
Wild Nights with Emily is a charming film, that may prove to leave a deeper impression in regards to its challenging of Dickinson’s persona than in its quirky take on the biopic. Well worth seeking out at this year’s Merlinka Festival.