"The the Truth, But Tell It Slant"

Wild Nights With Emily
(USA, 85 min.)
Written and directed by Madeleine Olnek
Starring: Molly Shannon, Amy Seimetz, Susan Ziegler, Brett Gelman
Emily Dickinson at writing desk
Molly Shannon stars as Emily Dickinson in Wild Nights With Emily
Greenwich Entertainment
All these years we’ve been idolizing Emily Dickinson as a woman of quiet passion. English classes peruse her poems through the lens of loneliness and the melancholy tone of unrequited love. Emily, it turns out, was a demon in the sack with her sister in law.

Wild Nights With Emily is revisionist history played to the hilt. This devilishly funny film from writer/director Madeline Olnek is a must-see for any bookworm or nerd for literary history. It’s also a sharply perceptive take on the phallocentric nature of artistic cannons. Dickinson cringes at the term “female poet” during Wild Nights With Emily and one can’t help but see the wince as Olnek’s well-timed shot at the buzzword du jour, “female director,” which muddles equality with its insistence on a qualifier.

Olnek dives into recent critical appraisals of Dickinson’s work that view her life and poetry through her allegedly intimate relationship with her best friend and sister-in-law, Susan. Dickinson comes alive through a delightfully spirited performance by Molly Shannon, while Susan Ziegler is giddy fun as Susan. The film finds a droll point to complete its triangle with Amy Seimetz as Mabel Todd, the editor who posthumously packaged Dickinson’s poetry for publication and purportedly reframed much of the poet’s work to straighten out its romantic passion. Olnek plays with the miscalculations of history with tongue-in-cheek humour as she frames Emily and Susan’s relationship in two threads with one depicting history as it was experienced and the other offering history as it was told.

The latter thread sees Mabel telling the “story” to a gaggle of women’s society types who smile and nod while hearing of Emily’s struggle to publish. Seimetz is a hoot sending up everyone who was complicit in either undervaluing Dickinson’s work or denying her voice. She offers the film’s biggest performance as Mabel shamelessly takes credit for Dickinson’s success, in turn giving the film a well-earned sense of significance in its rewrite of history.

The former thread goes inside Emily’s home to challenge the characterization of the poet as a skittish and reclusive writer plagued by unrequited love. Emily and Susan, next-door neighbours, send one another love letters several times per day and often get it on while the latter’s kids are at school. There are great details of domestic life that observe the nuances of Dickinson’s inspiration, like dashing off poems on the backside of recipe cards, that were foreign to the male editors and publishers who dismissed her work.

The romance between the two women, however, is a playful spark. Susan is decidedly Emily’s muse, and one can appreciate this fact regardless of whether one agrees with the angle that suggests the two were intimate, but the film sees Susan inspiring Emily by her presence, whereas the essays of English classes gone by have often interpreted Emily’s poems through a sense of absence. The tone of the poems changes somewhat in Wild Nights With Emily. The sad cat lady becomes deeply romantic. Her signature dashes become secret, conspiratorial pauses, rather than show-offy breaths of punctuation. (It’s also very, very funny to see how the film plays with the men’s rigid definition of poetry in which all good things rhyme in broke-ass couplets.)

Olnek frequently places Dickinson’s poems as onscreen text while Shannon addresses the camera directly and softly gives life to their words. Shannon has the perfect look for the part—slightly weathered and stern, but with an ever-present laugh contained beneath the surface—and an even better sense of humor as Emily’s aged wisdom and fatigue with the publishing patriarchy offer droll satire and biting truth in her wrinkles and dry wit. She’s never been better, nor shown just how funny she can be while muting herself so carefully. Her sense of comedic timing is especially sharp and at its best when she outplays her males counterparts, as in a scene with Emily’s prospective editor Higginson (Brett Gelman), who mansplains her on the art of a good poem.

Played with nods and winks to the old-fashioned prudishness and sexism of Dickinson’s day, Wild Nights with Emily is a thoroughly contemporary take on literary history. The film is a master class in tone and comedic restraint as Olnek uses the cadence, language, and comportment of mid-19th century America to honour two women whose plight and whose love echoes throughout the experiences of women today. “Tell the truth, but tell it slant,” eh, Em?

Wild Nights with Emily opens in Toronto on June 7.