A Love Story Never Told: ‘Wild Nights with Emily’

by Christian Ramos on May 16, 2019

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Solid Rock Fist Up] 

To begin, I know nothing about Emily Dickinson. I’m not sure if I studied her in my American literature class in high school, I’m not familiar with the poems, and really the only reference I have of her was that she was a poet, a recluse and a few years back, a film was made about her. And now, she gets another film.

Wild Nights with Emily, directed by Madeleine Olnek and starring Molly Shannon as Dickinson, wants to talk about the preconceived ideas that Dickinson was a recluse and that is why nearly all her poems were not published during her lifetime. The biggest new addition to the Dickinson narrative however, is the story of the poet and her friend Susan Gilbert (Susan Ziegler,) and the true fact that these two were more than just friends. This film takes a more comical approach to the story but that works well in its favor and zest to tell the truth.

The plot is very straightforward, showing the friendship and romantic affair between Dickinson and Gilbert from the teen years to Dickinson’s passing. For Dickinson, Gilbert is her muse and many of the poems and letters heard in the film are directly inspired by the two spending their time together. Gilbert even pushes Dickinson to publish her poems, with Dickinson’s reluctance. In one scene, Dickinson’s future mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Brett Gelman) tells her that the poetry of men vs. women is completely different, analyzes her poetry and feels it is not her time to publish such emotional work. She laments to Gilbert that a man like Higginson, compared to a poet like Ralph Waldo Emerson, will never be remembered, and sets off to write the poetry she wants to write, even if it doesn’t rhyme.

Again, this film draws on the relationship between the two women as more than just friends, and Susan herself finds Emily’s poetry after Emily’s death, noting that many of the best ones are addressed to Susan, proclaiming her love for her. This frightens Susan who erases many instances of her name in the poems, replacing them with a man’s name. There is a great snippet in the end explaining how technology has found ways to see where the name ‘Susan’ was originally placed in Dickinson’s poems.

This is a very “small” film in the sense that it feels like a long episode of Drunk History minimalized. Is that a bad thing? Not at all. In fact, because this feels so small and made on the cheap, you care more about the performances and the overall story than anything else. It’s a nice period costume dramedy that gives the story of Dickinson and Gilbert its due. A nice highlight of the production of this is how the poems of Dickinson are presented on screen. As each poem is read out loud, the words are posted on the screen for the audience to read along with and understand the deeper meaning. One poem scene in particular, ‘I died for Beauty – but was scarce’ is shot so beautifully, with nothing more than Shannon and a fellow actor in darkness, retelling the poem.

I am sure there are documentaries over the life of Dickinson out there that are more resourceful, but this film should be seen. It blends comedy and drama so well, something that is not easy to do in biopics. We are in a good moment for queer cinema in Hollywood right now, and even a film like this needs the recognition it deserves. It doesn’t set out to straight-wash history, but instead wants to strip away at the fact that Dickinson was a reclusive woman who never felt love. Wild Nights with Emily is a beautiful rendition of one of the most humble love stories never told.

Wild Nights with Emily opens this weekend at Alamo Drafthouse Kansas City

Christian Ramos is a recent graduate of KU with a B.A. in Film & Media Studies. When he’s not watching movies, he likes to brag about the pointless Oscar trivia he knows, remembers that time he dressed as Steven Spielberg for Halloween and shows off his tweet that Julianne Moore liked.

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