‘Wild Nights with Emily:’ Historical and satirical speculation
Despite the title, Wild Nights with Emily is hardly a raunchy romp, especially as the central figure is the esteemed poet Emily Dickinson (1930-1886), played here by Molly Shannon. It is, however, a sly comedy of manners, one that puts a (not-inaccurate) spin on the life and legacy of the prolific “Belle of Amherst.”
It is the conjecture of writer/producer/director Madeleine Olnek that Dickinson was not the reclusive spinster she was made out to be, but enjoyed a long-standing lesbian relationship with childhood friend Susan Gilbert (Susan Ziegler), who also happened to be married to Emily’s brother, Austin (Kevin Seal).
The narrative of Wild Nights with Emily is structured around a lecture given by Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz), who published much of Dickinson’s work after her death – after having “corrected” much of it (so to speak) – and presents herself as a definitive authority, despite never having glimpsed Emily once while she was alive. Indeed, Mabel’s main connection to Emily would seem to be an adulterous affair with Austin, and the main thrust of her lecture is wholly self-aggrandizing – although the genteel ladies in attendance listen with rapt attention.
That only a dozen of Dickinson’s 1,800 poems were published in her lifetime is a recurring and splendidly ironic joke. Characters criticize them for not rhyming properly, or for being too obscure. There is, of course, good reason, since many of Emily’s romantic musings were about Susan but had to be conveyed in oblique terms.
Brett Gelman plays Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, publisher of The Atlantic Monthly – he won’t publish Dickinson’s poems, either – and his completely clueless, self-absorbed discourse on great literature, in which he advises Emily to conform to the conventions of the form, is a gem.
Other highlights include Emily’s chat with doddering Judge Lords (Al Sutton), in which he confuses Charlotte and Emily Brontë and their work. There’s also a fabulously funny bit involving Ralph Waldo Emerson (Robert McCaskill).
Shannon’s had an interesting career. Her comedic versatility was evident during her stint on Saturday Night Live (1995-2001), even if she was sometimes overshadowed by the more animated antics of Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon and Chris Kattan. She brought her signature SNL character Mary Katherine Gallagher to the big screen in Superstar (1999) at a time when show-runner Lorne Michaels was attempting, with little success, to replicate the success of Wayne’s World (1992). Superstar was anything but super, but Shannon gave it her all.
She’s done some fine work since, although it too has sometimes been overlooked: Year of the Dog (2007), Life After Beth (2014), Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015), Private Life (2017), and an award-winning dramatic turn in Other People (2016).
She plays Emily Dickinson with wry and subtle tenderness, and although the action revolves around her character, this is very much an ensemble piece – and a successful one, at that. Olnek sustains a light, breezy tone throughout, yet upon Emily’s death, there’s a genuine sense of loss and tragedy. In what is likely a nod to the ongoing impact of Dickinson’s work, Wild Nights with Emily tends to sneak up and make its point – and its mark – when you least expect it.
See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2019, Mark Burger.