Wild Nights With EmilyReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/25/19 18:51:26
This genuinely peculiar little movie that does its best to correct the long-held and deliberately created impression that Emily Dickinson was a reclusive spinster is not just an acquired taste but also kind of a hard sell, and filmmaker Madeleine Olnek tends to concern herself less with opening this sort of highly-targeted movie to a broad audience than with the act of setting the record straight. It sometimes makes for the sort of movie where sometimes only one person in the room is laughing at a joke, but that one person is enjoying it.Where does Dickinson's reputation come from? The film shows Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz) giving talks on how she discovered the poet's work and letters in a trunk and brought them to the world, but there's obvious insincerity as she describes Emily as morbid and suffering from unrequited love. This would not be the case - as teenagers, Emily (Dana Melanie) and her friend Susan Gilbert (Sasha Frolova) fell hard for each other, and while Susan would marry Emily's brother Austin, it was in mainly to remain in Emily's orbit. Twenty years later, the relationship between Emily (Molly Shannon) and Susan (Susan Ziegler) was plain to see for anyone who bothered to look, with Susan doing whatever she could to help Emily get her poems published despite dismissive male editors. Of course, this wasn't necessarily a satisfying arrangement for Austin (Kevin Seal), which means that when Mabel came along and set her sights on him, things got contentious.
The film is an adaptation of Olnek's play, though one wonders a bit about how direct the adaptation is. There are quick tangents and asides that benefit from not having to shuffle people on and off a stage but which also pull the focus from Emily and Susan, such as a bit about a potential publisher's Civil War service that gets a laugh but seems like a bit of a detour for how much of a part he has in the movie compared to its short length and how the filmmakers sometimes skip over other material with a wink, as if to acknowledge there isn't room. The end credits seem to suggest that the film was shot piecemeal - entire crews are listed for specific scenes - so maybe Olnek just couldn't do more. If that's the case, she does well to pull together a lot of good bits into a film that doesn't just feel like a random overview.
It does, on occasion, leave Emily a bit more enigmatic than a more traditional biography might; This picture of the poet is not someone morbid or withdrawn, but she was nevertheless eccentric in ways that Olnek seldom tries to connect or explain. It probably beats trying to diagnose her or put her in a box, and I don't know that Molly Shannon's performance would be nearly as much fun if the filmmakers just portrayed her as a genius who happened to like other women in a time when that was frowned upon. Instead there's something genuinely weird about her, like Shannon is bringing impeccable comic timing to bear on scenes that may or may not be jokes. It makes her romance with her sister-in-law all the more poignant, in a way, that this unusual woman could find someone who believed in her and was sharp enough to figure out how to mostly make things work in a situation stacked against them. Susan Ziegler's performance as Susan is similarly the glue that holds the film together; she and Shannon find a unique chemistry in how Emily and Susan alternate being glib and witty with looks that indicate they are nothing bit perplexed.
Aside from that and the deadpan period gags wedged in wherever they can fit, Wild Nights with Emily is the rare film that arguably gets stronger as it loops back around to its framing device. The filmmakers initially seem to overreach as Amy Seimetz's Mabel all but looks the audience square in the eyes and declares herself an unreliable narrator, and it initially stumbles when finally getting to her - there's meaty material in how the Susan/Austin/Mabel situation is a sort of "pride triangle" but that's a movie in itself - but the film is at its sharpest once she gets the chance to work. Seimetz and Olnek add a bit of a nuance to her pettiness and opportunism, and it makes Sue's literal erasure work despite being a moment that might have been considered too on-the-nose for satire.Even with that strong ending, the film is often so dry that even at 84 minutes, it can seem a little drawn-out and static - it never feels stage-bound, but can land in the no-man's-land between natural, heightened, and self-aware. It's just odd and plain-spoken enough that it should hopefully find an audience among those who like off-beat comedy even if they're not interested in nineteenth-century poetry, an entertaining primer on how common knowledge can incorrect wrong.
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