The Emily of the title is the 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson, long thought to be a delicate recluse who was afraid to publish her work. But that, the film tells us, is an entirely false narrative devised for profit after her death. In fact, Dickinson was a strong and passionate woman who carried on a life-long affair with a woman who was her childhood friend and later her sister-in-law who lived conveniently next door. Played by miscast SNL alum Molly Shannon, Emily is certainly an unconventional poet, but also an early women’s rights adherent pushing for women to have the same opportunities as men and to be taken just as seriously. While it is a potentially heavy subject, the film has a light tone, which works most of the time. It’s an odd little romcom that plays off the juxtaposition of Emily’s real life with the sanitized version told by Mabel Loomis Todd (Amy Seimetz), Emily’s brother’s sly mistress, who as her de facto biographer took great liberties with Dickinson’s legacy, despite having never actually met her.
Dickinson’s relationship with her lover Susan (Susan Ziegler) is shown from beginning to end starting with scenes of their first attraction and kiss and ending with Susan washing Emily’s corpse. And throughout, Susan is Emily’s muse and champion when the powers that be don’t get her or her poetry. Though the affair was hidden, they were able to carry on daily with friendly visits and notes sent back and forth with the help of Susan’s children who appeared to be in on the ruse. Mabel Loomis meanwhile was carrying on with Susan’s husband in a very public fashion, which really worked out well for everyone involved. And the entire setup gave Emily great fodder for her writing. Her only unhappiness came from the constant rejections from men who could not see past her gender to appreciate and publish her poems.
While the story is about Emily, the most interesting character is Mabel (whose fascinating life unexamined here deserves it own film) who somehow swooped in and took over as Emily’s posthumous biographer, editing the poems, literally erasing Susan from them, and passing herself off as the expert on all things Dickinson. Her lecture to a ladies’ audience about the life and work of Emily is the backbone of the film and Amy Seimetz’s performance is wickedly funny. Poetry aficionados will probably get more from Wild Nights with Emily than those not familiar with her work as her poems are read throughout the film. But as a correction of history, it is a welcome addition to literary filmdom. It’s also entertaining. I’d recommend it to those looking for a small, smart, and somewhat silly flick. And you might just want to dust off those old books of poetry when you get home, too.