The humor in Madeleine Olnek’s Wild Nights With Emily is subtle, as if it were a skit rejected from Saturday Night Live because it was too tame. One example comes when a very Southern chambermaid for the Emily Dickinson household slides in sheet music for “The Yellow of Rose” to be played among the usual copies of Bach and Chopin. The camera lingers on it just long enough for the affect to make one snicker for its small charm.
Small charm is mostly the feeling given off by Olnek’s ribald tale of poet Emily Dickinson and her love affair with longtime friend and eventual sister-in-law Susan (Susan Zeigler). And as Dickinson, Molly Shannon (even further re-iterating the Saturday Night Live connection) plays her as a mostly rebellious and confident woman, more concerned over why she can’t be herself than the oft-represented tortured writer. Where the recent A Quiet Passion (2017) preferred stately brooding, Wild Nights With Emily emanates slight screwball humor, where even the children of the household seem to know more than the adults.
Telling the story from the point of view of an unreliable narrator in the form of Mabel Todd (a wonderful Amy Seimetz), a publisher who would in real life bring Dickinson’s work out to the world, also adds some comedic elements to the film. Speaking to a literary circle throughout the film, her character becomes the supposed last word on Dickinson’s short but powerful life, essentially molding the idea of Dickinson as a recluse in order to make her writings that much more redolent. The fact she never even met the writer only adds insult to injury.
Further injury abounds, however. Olnek envisions Mabel taking up with Susan’s husband (Kevin Seal), which is essentially a good thing because that leaves Emily and Susan to the freedom of their own afternoon trysts behind closed doors, which further establishes the tone of Wild Nights With Emily as an 18th century leave-your-keys-in-the-bowl swingers party where everyone is much more happy with someone else than stuffy literary costume drama.
This shrugging off of contemporary moral values is inhabited best by the fairly one-note but ultimately winning performance by Shannon, maintaining most of the demure facial ticks and smarmy replies that have made her famous, most intently in the dressing-down conversation she has with a male publisher about women’s roles in the arts.
Not just content to make one laugh, though, Olnek, who also wrote the screenplay, ends things on a quietly devastating note of tragic revisionism that any fan of Dickinson now recognizes as nothing short of literary identity expulsion. It’s as if Olnek wanted to decipher both the humor and ultimate repression of Dickinson’s life, which Wild Nights With Emily does well.
The film opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, April 19 at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas.