Since her work was published posthumously after her death in 1886, the perceived persona of Emily Dickinson has been that of a spinster and a recluse, a woman who never married (gasp!), and spent her time as a lonely poet perfecting her aesthetic.
All that gets thrown out the window in writer/director Madeleine Olnek’s sublime re-examination of Dickinson’s life in Wild Nights With Emily, which also has the distinction of being one of Molly Shannon’s strongest and funniest performances to date as the titular poet. The film peels back the facade of a time that was seen as a puritanical wonderland of repression. The subversion of the film is a singular creation, as conventions are continually ejected out of hand, as if it could be perhaps the norm, as if it could be perhaps what a life looks like.
The film, based on more recent biographies, paints Emily as a joyous, witty intellectual stifled by the patriarchy of the 19th century. Much of that joy comes from her romance with her childhood friend and confidante Susan Gilbert (Ziegler). However, Gilbert ends up marrying Emily’s brother Austin (Seal), becoming her sister-in-law. But all is not lost, as the newlyweds build a house next door. Much scurrying between the houses ensues. The framing device is that of Mabel Todd (a brilliant Amy Seimetz), who was the first to publish Dickinson’s poetry, and the first to perpetuate her austere ways, as she gives a lecture at a women’s society. The juxtaposition between the depiction of Emily’s life and Todd’s version of it are hilarious. In fact, this is one of the best comedies I’ve seen all year. The supporting players are expertly cast, and Shannon and Ziegler have a delightful chemistry.
After The Foxy Merkins and Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same, Olnek has not only placed another feminist comedy in her cap – she shows how a biopic should be done. The film, for all its archness and theatricality, is essentially a warm and welcome love story of two people, navigating a world that really doesn’t know what to do with them. It’s new. It’s old. It’s the same old tale of love versus oppression, but through the wonderful performances and the gloriously erudite script, Wild Nights hums along in the manner of the best of Dickinson’s work. This film is alive.
Read our interview with star Molly Shannon and filmmaker Madeleine Olnek, "Saving Emily Dickinson From History," April 19, at austinchronicle.com/screens.
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