A Certain Slant of Dickinson: Great Acting Meets Odd Direction in “Wild Nights With Emily”

A new biopic about Emily Dickinson reveals her life to have been full of insatiable lust, secret love, daring deception, and a quiet hunger for glory. One of the movie’s aims is to disrupt the long-standing myth of Dickinson as a lonely, loveless recluse who spent her life writing poems about death. At this, the movie succeeds spectacularly.

“Wild Nights With Emily” revolves around the love between Emily, played by Molly Shannon, and her brother’s wife, Susan. On the movie’s account, Susan, played by Susan Ziegler, actually married Emily’s brother, Austim, played by Kevin Seal, only so that she and Emily could live close enough to continue their love in secret. What’s more, Mabel, played by Amy Seimetz, a woman who was hired to come to Dickinson’s house to play piano — and with whom Austin had a long affair — took control of Emily’s unpublished poems and letters upon her death so that she could profit off of Dickinson’s rising posthumous fame. In the process, Mabel literally erased all hints of Susan from Dickinson’s writings. The enormous role Susan played in Dickinson’s poetry wasn’t fully revealed until 1998, when some enterprising nerd used modern technology to uncover the name that Mabel had erased over and over again. Every time, the name was “Susan.”

So: America’s finest poet had a passionate, life-long love affair with her brother’s wife, and her brother was left so sexually frustrated that he courted Dickinson’s piano player, who, upon her death, took control of her poems in part to cover up the existence of Dickinson’s love affair with her lover’s wife?! All melodrama aside, if that’s not an exciting plot, I don’t know what is.

Illustration by Annabel Driussi

And the acting here matches the plot: Shannon’s Emily is witty, hilarious, and often wears her heart on her sleeve. This is perhaps an exaggeration of what Dickinson must actually have been like, but the acting serves to counter the version of Dickinson we have in our heads, so some exaggeration should be both expected and allowed. And the supporting cast works wonders, too. The story flips back and forth between younger and older versions of Emily and Susan, and all four actresses involved are able to impart a sense of continuity between the timelines. The men in the film exist mostly to demonstrate their own stupidity (for example, an editor at the Atlantic Monthly tells Emily she’s “just not ready” for publication, and he was the only editor who gave her thought at all), but even the men’s acting is on par — they make for convincing dunces.

Despite an exciting plot and excellent actors, the film is marred by a number of odd directorial and writing choices. The largest is that the film is narrated by Mabel, the woman who distorted Dickinson’s poetry upon her death. It’s a clever device, since the character of Mabel is narrating the movie which aims to undo the very narrative about Dickinson that the real Mabel told, but it still yanks the viewer out of what’s otherwise a consistently engaging story. 

A slew of other little formal innovations usually feel like they’re getting in the way of the film instead of adding to it. For instance, Dickinson’s poems are often flashed across the screen and read aloud by a disembodied voice at pivotal moments in the story. This works occasionally —  especially when the context of the story added some dimension to an actual Dickinson poem — but more often, the poems remain opaque because you only get to glance at them, line by line, before returning to the plot.

Brief diversions notwithstanding, the film is a smart and wonderfully queer retelling of Dickinson’s life, full of as much spirit as her poems themselves. But Dickinson’s poems are moving in part because they show formal restraint where others would be tempted to be obvious. Since “Wild Nights” doesn’t show the same kind of restraint, all its tricks collude to make it feel like some film majors stumbled on a great idea, but got in their own way by being overly eager to prove their formal virtuosity. I saw “Wild Nights” with a friend who’s a film major, and, for what it’s worth, he agrees. 

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