A new film on Emily Dickinson uses comedy to portray the ways in which history gets misconstrued.
It’s both disappointing and upsetting to think that so much of what we know about history is either embellished or plainly incorrect. For decades, the world has thought that the classic poet Emily Dickinson was a recluse spinster; someone who stayed inside writing without much interest in the outside world. But Wild Nights with Emily shows a different side to the poet that the world is far less familiar with.
Based on actual letters and poetic works from Dickinson used with the permission of the Harvard University Press, the film centers around her love affair with her sister-in-law Susan. Since they were young, Susan and Emily shared a romantic and intellectual bond that lasted until Dickinson’s death. Throughout their lives, they encouraged and supported one another in all of their endeavors, finding ways to conduct their affair in secret, often sending Susan’s children back and forth with letters. The story is narrated by a woman named Mabel who was an editor for one of Dickinson’s poetry collections after death, and the film juxtaposes her narration with the actual events. While she incorrectly informs a new group of Dickinson fans about her personal life, we see what really occurred.
In the film, Dickinson (Molly Shannon) is shown to be much more humorous and have much more of a personality than historical accounts sometimes give her credit for. And that’s the beauty of it. Dickinson is portrayed in a way that brings life to a writer who wrote such lively poetry.
To think that no one ever noticed the love between Susan and Emily all of those years while they were alive is a little difficult to believe, but the film works with that in a way that strengthens its comedic elements. From a cat-lady sister to a mansplaining editor, the people around Dickinson weren’t necessarily the most astute. Or at least the film doesn’t think so, and it almost has a Drunk History sort of feel to it at times.
Period pieces are no easy feat, but director Madeline Olnek does it excellently, capturing little details that make particular scenes feel more authentic and jokes land more powerfully. There’s a scene near the beginning where Emily and Susan are reading Shakespeare during a time when it was laugh-out-loud funny. And the reason the audience’s roaring laughter is so hilarious is that of the historical difference in comedy between then and now emphasized in the film.
That said, the choice to make this a comedy rather than a dramatic biopic works to the story’s benefit. Even though letters and writings strongly point to Dickinson being a very passionate woman, keeping up an affair her entire life, the specifics as to why the opposite was recorded in history are unknown. There is more leeway to that aspect of the situation, and being that it was probably something ridiculous that speaks to the obliviousness of the era as the film speculates, only comedy has the tools to capture that. That said, while it may be a comedy, never once does it laugh at Dickinson or lessen her life, legacy, and story.
Perhaps the best part about Wild Nights though is the fact that it encourages the idea that single accounts of history should be questioned at times. Dickinson fan or not, the premise is interesting and the history fascinating. To do Dickinson justice means to take a look at all sides of her story and that’s precisely what the film works to accomplish.