For busting the chaste, reclusive, “belle of Amherst” myth, look no farther than this indie production Wild Nights With Emily (2019) that takes a different look at the life of American poet Emily Dickinson. The film is playing in select U.S. cities right now, with a wide release later in April, and it will come to DVD and digital on-demand this summer.
Comedian Molly Shannon stars as the poet, and the film does have a comedic, irreverent touch. This isn’t a standard-issue frock flick, and, fair warning, the costumes have a low-budget, high-school theatrical appearance. Compared to 2017’s A Quite Passion, starring Cynthia Nixon, Wild Nights may suffer simply because the visuals are clunky and cheap. But stick with it because the story is far more deep, interesting, poetic, and, honestly, this script is based on more actual history than any previous filmed look at Emily Dickinson’s life.
As writer / director Madeleine Olnek told KQED:
“I’ve been really moved, if that’s the right word, by Drunk History. It’s shown us that historical pieces, when they’re stripped of all the pretension that we associate with them, are really about people in situations dealing with ideas. When I was reading Dickinson’s letters, I was surprised by how contemporary so much of the language was. It shocked me: jokes and things that you would never think someone in the 1800s would say. So I didn’t want the actors’ attention on presenting the period. We’ve seen that in a million films. I was interested in everyone focusing on what each person felt in that situation, the connections with other people and what they were struggling with.”
I thought I knew Dickinson, but really, I just knew her poetry, which I adore and, I wrote several papers about in college for a then-future U.S. poet laureate, who gave me high marks (yes, I’m bragging, it’s one of my few things to crow about). But I didn’t keep up with the research, so it was exciting to find out about the history behind this film.
Olnek credits recent scholarship by Dr. Martha Nell Smith (outlined in the New York Times) as inspiring this film. Dr. Smith has done extensive work uncovering erasures (including, physical erasures on the paper!) in Dickinson’s letters. Using high-tech methods, Smith realized that Mabel Loomis Todd, who posthumously published Dickinson’s poetry, had removed the name of Susan Gilbert Dickinson from many poems and letters. Susan was married to Emily’s brother Austin, who was having an affair with Mabel Loomis Todd. Emily wrote hundreds of letters to Susan, and the two lived next door to each other. These letters were incredibly passionate, tender, and sexual, making it clear that the two women carried on a love affair over the course of many years. Dr. Smith served as the historical consultant on this movie.
From the very first scenes, Emily’s relationship with Susan is presented as a lusty affair, yet matter-of-factly, not as a problem to be overcome or a horrible secret that must be concealed. At certain points later in the film, the couple make attempts to hide their relationship, but half-heartedly. Some of their family and social circle seem to know and not care, but many are just oblivious. The truth of their relationship lives between the sheets and in letters, where few would see anyway, and that’s what the film explores.
The film has a non-linear structure and its story is told, as in real life, by the falsified notions of Mable Loomis Todd. As writer / director Olnek says in the press kit:
“Though the film presents an unreliable narrator to evidence the inconsistencies between Emily’s true biography and the persona that Mabel Todd — her editor — created, our exploration of sexism suggests that this manipulation of Emily’s truth may even have been necessary to Dickinson becoming posthumously popular in the late 19th century. Thus, Mabel Todd is not a simple villain seeking to malign Emily for some sort of revenge, but a savvy woman doing what she thought was necessary for the satisfaction of her own need for creative expression — even if the poetry belonged to someone else.”
Todd is not entirely unsympathetic because, like Emily, she is a smart, ambitious woman trapped in a misogynist system. At one point in the story, she suggests publishing a narrative form of her and Austin’s love letters, but Austin shoots her down. He says something along the lines of, yes dear, you should have some creative outlet, why not paint crockery? Mabel Loomis Todd edited Emily into being recluse as her own way of storytelling and creating a path to fame, even though Mabel and Emily never met.
Emily Dickinson did try to get her poetry published during her lifetime, and all those attempts and rejections have been ignored as much as her same-sex love affair. Olnek asks:
“Why does it matter that Emily Dickinson tried over and over again in her lifetime to get published and was rejected, as opposed to the story we hear about her being a reclusive spinster who would rather stay in her room and have all of her poetry burned on her death? It matters because implicit in this narrative is the message “if you keep your head down and follow social norms for women, eschew ambition and don’t draw attention to yourself, (eventually) you will be rewarded.” This denies the effort that Emily put into trying to get her work published, and the fact that her first posthumous book of poetry had to be paid for by her family, because no publishing house would publish it. And the idea that she wrote without wanting to be published exonerates the world that prevented her voice from being heard and also plants the idea that for women, it is wrong to desire recognition.”
Wild Nights shows Dickinson seeking publication, putting her poetry out into the world, and yearning for an audience, which is a singularly brave thing to do. It’s similar to Charlotte Bronte (who Emily read and admired) going to London to get her and her sisters’ novels published. Dickinson saw herself as part of that same tradition.
The poetry itself is brought to life at various points in the film beautifully and inventively. You hear voiceovers, as expected, but also text upon the screen, and in several scenes, the poems come to life. These episodes are like surrealist fantasy and reminded me of how Frida Kahlo’s paintings were recreated and came to life in Frida (2002). There’s also a HI-LAR-IOUS interpretation with one of my all-time favorite Dickinson poems set to “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” I cackled in the theater!
So, about those costumes. Yeah, they’re weak. The press kit lists Linda Gui, Christine Casaus, and Courtney Newman as the costume designers. Casaus has worked on 24 episodes of Drunk History, while the other two have worked in TV and indie films. I’d say the Drunk History aesthetic is predominant. Meaning, the costumes are vaguely Victorian but not specific to the 1860s (a date noted in a title card) or 20 years earlier for the flashbacks to Emily and Susan as teenagers. Sometimes the women wear hoops — giant, oversized ones, which seem way more cliche Southern belle than Amherst, Massachusetts. Sometimes the women are dressed like 1890s “New Women” in tailored skirts and shirtwaist blouses, when Emily Dickinson died in 1886. Sometimes, these different gowns show up in the very same scene on various women. It’s as if you had a film set in the 20th century, and some people wore 1920s flapper dresses while other looked like 1960s hippies and others looked like 1980s punk rockers, and they were all in the same scene.
In an interview with HeyUGuys, Madeleine Olnek says of the costumes:
“It added a real complication for women just going about their daily lives, how difficult it was to wear those giant hoop skirts. You know, it was a pretty scandalous thing for the day what Emily Dickinson did when she started wearing that white dress and I believe it was a Steve Jobs thing. I think the reason why so many artists do that, wear the same thing every day, is that they just don’t want to spend any part of their mind on what they’re going to wear. So her famous white dress that so much has been made of actually had a very utilitarian reason, she wanted to wear the same thing and she liked to garden. So it was practical, not weird. But it was weird for a woman in a society that often reduces women to their appearance to say ‘I’m going to care the least about that.’ A very rebellious act.”
I have to point out that the “woman in white” is just part of the “belle of Amherst” myth about Emily Dickinson, and I’m sorry that Olnek still bought into that one despite having ditched so many other stereotypes about the poet. One white dress of Emily’s survives, but she, like many women of the period, wore white on occasion, along with other colors. It was not an exclusive thing.
And the hoop skirts? Omg, this movie uses far too big of hoops for the year and setting, uses them inconsistently, and uses them improperly (visible ridgeline, whoa; wearing them in bed, WTfrock?).
Wild Nights With Emily may look chintzy because of the production values, but the performances are solid and the story is historically accurate and highly engaging. Look for it in theaters right now or on digital and DVD summer 2019.