It sounds like a classic “what if” premise: What if poet Emily Dickinson, the Belle of Amherst, long-famed as a reclusive, unworldly spinster, nurtured a secret love affair with another woman throughout her life?
But it’s not such idle speculation. That the poet had a long-term love relationship from their teenage years on with Susan Gilbert, the woman who would eventually become her brother’s wife, has been increasingly well-documented in recent years. It was a story too delicious to pass up for playwright/filmmaker Madeleine Olnek. In 1999, she wrote a stage play celebrating this newly discovered aspect of Dickinson’s life, which she now adapts in the film Wild Nights With Emily.
Olnek decided that Dickinson’s love poetry made no sense if she’d lived all her life as a timid, untouched spinster. When she read an article describing the technology by which it was now possible to read words that had been erased from old letters and manuscripts—in Dickinson’s case, dedications to “Sue” or “Susie”—Olnek was inspired. Despite its tongue-in-cheek title, there’s nothing lurid in Olnek’s film, which portrays Dickinson’s surprising double life with plenty of dry humor and tenderness.
Molly Shannon stars as an outwardly drab, but emotionally frisky Emily, who lives all her life in her parents’ Amherst house that she eventually inherits. Her days are occupied writing the nearly 1,800 poems that few will ever read (only a dozen were published in her lifetime), but which consume her. Asked why she always wears the same plain white dress, she says it’s because she doesn’t want to waste time and energy deciding what to wear every day.
As a teenager at school in the Ladies Shakespeare Society (the film unfolds in three different time periods), young Emily meets young Susan as they are reading aloud one of the love duels from Much Ado About Nothing. Their first kiss soon follows, and a flirty, passionate and soulful relationship continues undisturbed after Susan (played as an adult by Susan Ziegler) eventually marries Emily’s brother, Austin (Kevin Seal), and they move into the house next door.
The movie’s comic tone is odd at times (especially around the third Dickinson sibling, Lavinia, the designated dingbat). But it’s smart in exploring the depth of the bond Emily shared with the woman basically excised from history for 180 years. While careful to keep their physical intimacy secret, they pour out their hearts and intellect to each other in hundreds of notes passed between the two houses for the rest of Emily’s life.
It’s Susan who encourages Emily’s (mostly futile) attempts to get published (magazine editors complain that her verses don’t rhyme), and commiserates with her over the editors’ lack of vision. But the movie is much too playful to be taken for a feminist rant. If there is a villain—besides the male literary establishment, which refuses to accept a female into its sacred old boy’s club (except for its token female, the bombastic Helen Hunt Jackson, deftly skewered in one funny aside)—it is Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz).
Hired to provide mood music on the piano while Emily writes upstairs, Mabel becomes Austin’s mistress. Determined to capitalize on her three degrees of separation from the famous poet (whom the film suggests she never actually met), Mabel becomes the self-appointed executor of Dickinson’s literary legacy after the poet’s death—which includes personally erasing all those “Susies” from Emily’s love poems. She also takes it upon herself to provide titles for what few of Emily’s intentionally untitled poems see print in her lifetime. (When one of these appended, spoiler-providing titles appears on her poem in the newspaper, Emily is appalled. “It’s like calling Romeo and Juliet ‘They Both Die In the End,’” she cracks.)
Despite her uneven narrative, Olnek often hits the mark, as when the sound of Mabel’s dogged erasing plays over Susan’s tender administrations at Emily’s deathbed. This eloquent shot speaks volumes.
Wild Nights With Emily
*** (out of four)
With Molly Shannon and Susan Ziegler. Written and directed by Madeleine Olnek. A Greenwich Entertainment release. Rated PG-13. 84 minutes.