"Emily Dickinson wished to be published posthumously," says Mabel Todd ( Amy Seimetz ), the poet's editor, at one point in the new dramatic comedy Wild Nights with Emily. "'Posthumous' refers to a soul that wishes to more glory in the recognition after death than in life. It's the heaven of the literary world."
But Wild Nights with Emily illustrates how such posthumous appreciation implicates an artist's contemporaries for erasing those elements from their life story that they could not fathom.
And in the case of Emily Dickinsonplayed here by Molly Shannonthat erasure was a literal one, as the references to the great love of her life, her sister-in-law Susan ( Susan Ziegler ), were indeed physically erased from her poems.
The film sets out to destroy the myth of Emily as a reclusive spinster who never wanted to be published. Set in Amherst Massachusetts, where Emily resided with her sister in a home next door to their brother Austin ( Kevin Seal ) and his wife Susan, Wild Nights with Emily presents Emily and Susan as very much in love, with an ambitious Emily trying unsuccessfully to get published, never finding favor in her lifetime with the ( usually male ) literary editors who fail to comprehend her prose.
It takes a bit to get with the film's vibe. Wild Nights with Emily juxtaposes serious themes of forbidden love and female subjugation with comedic performance styles and direction that would be at home on The Office or Arrested Development. When Emily presents Susan with a love poem, Susan reads it, guffaws and asks disbelievingly, "'Sue forever more'? Do you think that speaks to a larger audience?"
What's most incredible about the film however, is just how well that juxtaposition works. One problem with traditional biopics is that filmmakers for obvious reasons want to be truthful to a story, but must condense and omit details, often leaving behind exposition-laden dialogue. That's not the case here.
Contemporary comedies now trade more in presenting characters in awkward social situations than depicting truly witty repartee. Director and writer Madeleine Olnek does indulge that awkwardness, but she unabashedly uses anachronistic dialogue and performances to highlight what were emotional truths, getting some genuine laughsa story about Emily and some stray cats, or how Emily arrived at the final version of "Because I Could Not Stop for Death"along the way.
But there are many serious and graceful, even heartbreaking moments as well; indeed, most of those belong to the married Susan, who in one scene watches from her window as the not-as-socially-bound Emily trysts with a local widow. It's left to Susan, in fact, to carry out Wild Night with Emily's painful finale.
Molly Shannon is excellent as Emily. At times she's oblivious to the implications of her writing, but you know she's not oblivious to the stunted emotions and limited intellectual curiosity of most people around her, save Susan. After an editor patronizes her work for three hours straight, Emily dryly responds, "Thank you for your surgery."
Wild Nights with Emily was obviously shot on a low budget, so don't go expecting Barry Lyndon-level production design or cinematography. But Olnek truly has accomplished something special here, mining the history of one of America's greatest poets and locating within it an energy that's ultimately both funny and sad, but best of all truthful.
Wild Nights with Emily opens in Chicago April 19 at Landmark's Century Center Cinema.