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Movie Review: 'Wild Nights With Emily' Takes a Sitcom Approach to Poet Emily Dickinson


Published May 15, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated May 15, 2019 at 10:50 a.m.

This may be the weirdest literary biopic ever made. So I sought the assistance of Dan Chiasson in processing its oddities and the liberties taken by its creators. A bard with six books under his belt, an English professor at Wellesley College and poetry critic for the New Yorker, he knows more about the subject of Wild Nights With Emily than I ever will.

Emily Dickinson is a one-spinster industry. Plays, movies, critical studies, documentaries and biographies have analyzed her legacy. Collections of her poems continue to be published, along with letters. Liz Lemon named a cat after her. Every sort of Dickinson merch is marketed online. Coming soon to Apple TV+: "Dickinson," a 19th-century coming-of-age series.

Wild Nights With Emily is really something new, the first attempt to make the "belle of Amherst" the subject of a sitcom. That's what this film from writer-director Madeleine Olnek (The Foxy Merkins) resembles more than anything. It's lighted, scripted and paced more like "Seinfeld" than Shakespeare in Love. And it stars "Saturday Night Live" alum Molly Shannon.

From its slapstick opening showing the poet and her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert (Susan Ziegler), falling into each other's arms before falling to the floor, the movie makes hay with two controversial theories. First: that Dickinson was not the ascetic shut-in biographers have mythologized, but a spirited sensualist who engaged in a lifelong love affair with the girl who grew up to be her brother's wife. Second: that, contrary to accepted scholarship, Dickinson was not content to wait for posthumous publication but actively pursued public recognition.

Olnek posits that Dickinson pursued fame primarily by pursuing Thomas Wentworth Higginson, poetry critic for the Atlantic. He's played by Brett Gelman as a mansplaining blowhard. All the film's men — from Emily's brother Austin (Kevin Seal) to Parson Mudd (Lee Eaton) — are portrayed as blowhards.

Hidden away in the family home, Emily and Susan divide their time between mattress-based merriment, critiquing new poems and strategizing ways to attain fame. With access to Dickinson's papers at Harvard University, the filmmakers make imaginative use of them, both visually and through voice-over. The result is a picture drenched in otherworldly verse.

The movie's tone is more problematic — antic one minute, self-serious the next. Think Kramer breaking into "To be or not to be..." Much of the cast is outclassed by the leads, with several scenes jarringly stilted. Shannon proves up to the role, however. Who knew she could do ethereal?

Dickinson, of course, died without ever seeing her poems in the Atlantic. I've never been able to make heads or tails of them, so I asked Chiasson whether, had he been in Higginson's shoes, he would have recognized their merits.

"She's a poet I love totally and immoderately," the professor said. "When I was at Amherst, my teachers considered her at best a local curiosity. Several of her best-known poems still seem trite to me. But that leaves 2,000 or so I think of as bottomless, mysterious, lightning-struck."

How much stock does he put in the revisionist view that she sought fame? "Dickinson didn't want the poems published in the Atlantic," said Chiasson, "she just wanted to know if Higginson thought they were 'alive.'"

Finally, I asked where he stands: recluse or just misunderstood?

"The idea of suffering/reclusivity is a popular narrative about artists," he answered. "Nobody wants to make a movie about a poet getting yelled at by his wife for forgetting to buy fennel."

Given how weird Wild Nights sometimes gets, I wouldn't be so sure.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Wild Nights With Emily"