The Peculiar Passion of Emily Dickinson in “Wild Nights With Emily”

For decades queer and queer-friendly scholars have been trying to uncover the evidence of all that was erased from Dickinson's story.

The films of writer-director Madeleine Olnek (The Foxy Merkins, Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same) share a unique theatrical sensibility which includes a penchant for quirky topics, deadpan comedy and the direction of self-aware performances from her actors. Adapted from her own stage play of the same name (produced at the Wow Café Theater in New York City in 1999), Olnek’s exquisitely dry humor lands perfectly in the unexpected setting of a 19th century period piece about the true lesbian life and loves of Emily Dickinson.

Greenwich Entertainment
Molly Shannon and Susan Ziegler

Veteran SNL comedian Molly Shannon gives a terrific performance as Emily. Shannon plays her up as the recluse with the furrowed brow, the genius poet, the passionate lover—always with a touch of theatrical comic energy—as the film unfolds a fully imagined tale of Emily’s lesbian love affair with her sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson.

The talented stage actor and Olnek regular, Susan Ziegler does an equally wonderful job portraying Susan Dickinson. As Emily’s muse and object of affection, Susan was the recipient of such queer impassioned real-life poetry as: “Her breast is fit for pearls, But I was not a ‘Diver.’”
 

Two contextual notes: First, don’t arrive to this film expecting a sumptuous, million- dollar, Merchant-Ivory period production; rather, enjoy the economy of the settings and the remarkable achievement in translating the stage to the screen via pitch-perfect performances and inventive comic direction. And second, note too, that although it interprets real-life Dickinson scholarship and brings it to life, this is a fictional drama and the full truth of the relationship between Emily and Susan remains a matter of speculation

Wild Nights With Emily is a wildly enjoyable curative to 100+ years of homophobically inspired resistance to exploring whatever that truth may be. Queer and queer-friendly Dickinson scholars since the 1970s (most notably Lillian Faderman who first investigated Emily’s letters in 1977) have been trying to uncover the evidence of all that was erased from Emily’s story; the film’s end credits reveal that it wasn’t until 1998 that spectrographic technology definitively restored Susan’s name as the recipient of Emily’s passionate letters.

Greenwich Entertainment
Molly Shannon and Susan Ziegler

The unfolding tale of the Dickinson households in 1880s Amherst, Massachusetts, is conveyed via layered flashbacks, and narrated by the self-serving, egotistical Mabel Todd (played by the fabulous Amy Seimetz, who also co-stars in the just released Pet Sematary remake). Mabel Todd was the real-life editor of Emily’s posthumously published poetry and one of the many figures who obscured and even literally erased the truth of Susan and Emily’s love for one another (the film gives us Mabel erasing Susan’s name from the poems and letters, in real life it was Emily’s niece who did this). “There seems to be a very peculiar passion between them,” Mabel observes at one point.

The two primary male characters in the rest of the domestic drama include the husband of Susan, Emily’s brother Austin (Kevin Seal)—whose gradually revealed affair with Mabel Todd dissolves the myth of prim and proper 19th century New England. And literary editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Brett Gelman)—who Dickinson scholars have always speculated was Emily’s unrequited love interest (rather than Susan). But the greatest strength of Wild Nights With Emily is its trio of female performances and the masterful helming of its director.

Greenwich Entertainment
Brett Gelman and Molly Shannon

LGBT audiences have endured a century of sanitized Hollywood biopics that erase the queerness of their subjects. This past year has offered an impressive number of releases countering that trend. While writer-director Olnek was working with a miniscule budget compared to the other queer portraits of 2018–2019, Wild Nights deserves its place alongside Bohemian Rhapsody, Mapplethorpe, Collette, Can You Ever Forgive Me and Green Book.

Wild Nights With Emily opens in theaters in New York City and Los Angeles on April 12.

Jenni Olson is one of the world's leading experts on LGBT cinema history and a co-founder of PlanetOut.com. Her latest film project is "The Royal Road."
@JenniOlsonSF