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Wild Nights with Emily

Emily (Molly Shannon) doing what she should be best remembered for -writing
WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY – Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

This is not a review but a preview since I have not seen the new film about Emily Dickinson, Wild Nights with Emily.  The reviews have been positive.

I have posted a few times in recent years here about poets and poetry portrayed on film. The results have been mixed, but I think it is difficult to explain what poetry’s power is to someone who does not read or write it. It would be even more difficult to make it come to life on a screen. It comes to life for many of us on a page, read silently or read aloud.

On the film’s website “About” page, they describe the film in this way:

“In the mid-19th century, Emily Dickinson is writing prolifically, baking gingerbread, and enjoying a passionate, lifelong romantic relationship with another woman, her friend and sister-in-law Susan…
Yes this is the iconic American poet, popularly thought to have been a recluse.
Beloved comic Molly Shannon leads in this humorous yet bold reappraisal of Dickinson, informed by her private letters. While seeking publication of some of the 1,775 poems written during her lifetime, Emily (Shannon) finds herself facing a troupe of male literary gatekeepers too confused by her genius to take her work seriously. Instead her work attracts the attention of an ambitious woman editor, who also sees Emily as a convenient cover for her own role in buttoned-up Amherst’s most bizarre love triangle.
A timely critique of how women’s history is rewritten, WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY remains vibrant, irreverent and tender–a perhaps closer depiction of Emily Dickinson’s real life than anything seen before.”

Emily (Molly Shannon) and Susan (Susan Ziegler) in bed – WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY – Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

Not every filmgoer will know walking into a theater that the film’s title comes from one of her poems. It is one of my favorites of Emily’s poems.

Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile – the winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden –
Ah – the Sea!
Might I but moor – tonight –
In thee!

The Atlantic editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Brett Gelman) visits Emily to tell her that her poems are inaccessible, so he won’t be publishing them.  WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY – Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

I liked Terence Davies’ film A Quiet Passion, which is a biopic about Ms. Dickinson, but it followed the traditional story – which is at least partially true – of Emily’s chronic pain, unrequited love, literary obscurity, self-confinement and isolation.

What makes this new film different from other works about Emily is that it takes some of the evidence that has been found through studying the poems and Emily’s erasures which seem to indicate more than just a friendship with her brother’s wife, Susan.

If Emily was on Facebook, her relationship status would read “It’s Complicated.”

Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz) who narrates the film and assembled and edited the first posthumous collection of Dickinson’s poetry was also the mistress of Emily’s brother. Mabel’s edits out Emily’s now-famous dashes and deleted the dedications to her sister-in-law, Susan. Fake news.

Madeleine Olnek’s film is a reinterpretation of the somewhat standard story of Emily’s life that was taught for many years. I certainly was given a picture of a hermetic poet who never left her bedroom and would gaze out the window at flowers, funerals and the world passing by. She wanted her poems destroyed and forgotten.

That story is not accurate. How much closer to the truth is this film’s interpretation? The film is rated PG-13 for “sexual content” but it is a gentle intercutting of the edited Emily and the version of her where petticoats fall to the floor. Molly Shannon’s Emily is more of a heroine in what is probably a romantic comedy. If that interpretation brings more readers to the poems and blows the dust off Emily’s portrait, I’m all for it.