By Elizabeth Toohey.
Biopics, especially literary ones, tend to gravitate towards the grandiose. Sweeping vistas and luxurious estates command center stage as a setting for glamorous historical figures cloaked in elegant costumes whose lives appear a tumultuous series of clandestine love affairs, artistic ambitions, and untimely deaths. These period pieces, in other words, take themselves quite seriously. More recently, a sub-genre of feminist-revisionist-biopics has emerged – Jane Campion’s Bright Star (2009), about Keats’ lover Fanny Brawne, or the Kiera Knightley vehicle Colette (2018) – which center on a brilliant woman embattled with a man with greater power and cultural capital who shunts her to the margins or tries to repress or take ownership of her art. Many are important stories, but sitting through two hours of watching a woman get beaten down can be a bit draining.
Director Madeleine Olnek’s new rendering of the life of Emily Dickinson, starring Molly Shannon, is a different animal altogether. There is clandestine love and thwarted creative ambition aplenty – and yes, untimely deaths, too – yet in Wild Nights with Emily, Olnek resists sliding into a vortex of tragedy or melodrama. Satirical rather than epic, Wild Nights rejects the gauzy filter of the traditional period piece, thumbing its nose at its stuffiness. Shannon, a brilliant actor and comedian, has referred to the film as a “dramatic comedy,” and it’s the form the comedy takes, as well as the refusal to indulge in period nostalgia that’s disruptive to both the self-importance of the genre and the mythology of Emily Dickinson as spinster and recluse.
She was, in fact, neither. In addition to a wide circle of family and friends (she had over 100 correspondents) recent biographers have made a compelling case that Dickinson had a life-long love affair with Susan Huntington Gilbert, who became Susan Dickinson when she married Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin and moved – wait for it – next door to Emily. That so many of Dickinson’s letters and poems steeped in romantic imagery include direct addresses to “Sue” has come to light through spectrographic technology, the use of infrared light to detect alterations, that has revealed what was literally erased. In other words, it’s not just that Sue’s name appeared throughout Dickinson’s oeuvre, but that her family apparently desired to excise it, that makes the suggestion of a romantic entanglement all the more plausible.
Olnek takes this new version of Emily and runs with it. Her plot centers on the two women’s erotic love and devotion and the way it inspired and infused Dickinson’s poetry, highlighting the erasure of not just their affair but many elements that made Dickinson’s poetry ahead of its time: dashes were erased, titles added where none were intended, and changes were made in punctuation and rhymes all intended to “improve” the poems and make them more accessible.
The likely culprit was Mabel Loomis Todd, played with admirable aplomb by Amy Seimetz, who grew enmeshed with the Dickinson family through her affair with Austin that spanned more than a decade. Todd was the first to publish volumes of Dickinson’s poetry, posthumously, with “help” from The Atlantic’s editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson – who, though he mentored and corresponded with Dickinson, was an unpromising editor, given his rejection of her poems for publication during her lifetime (he was also scornful of an upstart Walt Whitman).
Much of Wild Nights’ comedy comes from the framing device of Todd – herself ambitious but talentless – delivering a lecture to the Ladies Rotary Club, in which she carefully constructs the myth of Dickinson as solitary recluse. By this point, Mabel was ensconced in her affair with Austin, one they made little attempt to hide, subjecting the entire family to scorn and ostracism. Olnek treats the affair with a note of wry pathos when, in an effort to support her artistic ambitions, Austin suggests Mabel paint crockery.
Higgins, too, comes in for exposure as a fool, simpering with self-importance, promoting the insipid poetry of the “lady poet” Helen Hunt Jackson and complaining of his first meeting with Dickinson, that she “drained my nerve power” and concluding, “I am glad not to live near her.”
Olnek’s film, then, despite some tragic content, remains more delightful than dark. That’s largely due to Shannon’s appeal, but also to the film’s oddly effective surreal notes. Young Emily (Dana Melanie) stares out at the audience with charming intensity, directly addressing us as though we were her beloved absent Susie gone west to work as a governess. And when we witness Helen Hunt Jackson read a particularly vapid line of poetry to a crowd of admirers, a subtitle appears stating simply, “the actual poetry of Helen Hunt Jackson,” as though anticipating our disbelief that lines like these could have garnered praise. In one weirdly wonderful moment, a medley of characters sings the famed “Because I could not stop for death” with a singsong rhymey-ness to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”
This surreal quality appears to more serious effect as well, when Emily, on her deathbed, appears suspended in darkness next to a black Union soldier wrapped in the American flag, and the two in tandem recite the poem “I died for beauty.” In contrast to the 2017 Cynthia Nixon vehicle, A Quiet Passion, the political and historical context that shaped Dickinson’s life and poetry are present but treated with a light touch rather than speechifying. We first see this soldier earlier in the film when we are introduced to Higginson, who is touting his creds as a writer and editor of The Atlantic, only to be corrected by the unnamed soldier, who blinking, asks him, deadpan, “no, what I meant is, what is your military experience?” Olnek’s unsparing comment on Higginson’s role as commander of the first Union regiment of freed African American soldiers may be a bit unfair to him personally, and yet the critique of the white-savior-narrative is sorely needed.
That the myth persists of Dickinson as loveless recluse who preferred her poems to remain unpublished during her lifetime testifies to how deeply embedded it was and how much our culture still resists the portrayal of women as ambitious and satisfied by the company of other women. In deliberately upending the image of Dickinson, Olnek calls into question the way literature becomes widely read and canonical and historical truths are sedimented. The sound of erasure that she attributes to Mabel Todd may frame Wild Nights, but in the final image, with a split screen that shows Mabel methodically removing Susan’s name on one side of the frame while Susan tends to Emily’s dead body on the other, it’s the tenderness that remains.
Elizabeth Toohey is a book critic for the Christian Science Monitor. Her essays have appeared in Film International and Terror in Global Narrative: Representations of 9/11 in the Age of Late-Late Capitalism (Palgrave, 2016). She is an Assistant Professor of English at Queensborough Community College, CUNY.