Writer-director Madeleine Olnek issues a corrective to the historical record with her Emily Dickinson biopic “Wild Nights With Emily.” Using historical research and records, Olnek systematically dissects the myth that the poet was a sexless and unloved recluse, peeling back the layers of narrative that surround her personal life to reveal a long-term romance.
Dana Melanie and Molly Shannon play Emily at different ages, as the film traces the arc of her romantic relationship with her lifelong friend Susan (played by Sasha Frolova and Susan Ziegler), who ultimately married Emily’s brother. In a framing device, Amy Seimetz plays Mabel Todd, Dickinson’s posthumous editor, giving a talk about her recollections of Emily’s life. What Mabel says doesn’t always match what we see on screen, a device that Olnek employs to illustrate the ways in which rumor becomes assumption, then myth, and then history.
Olnek’s film is a triumphantly queer and feminist retelling of Dickinson’s life and work based on letters, documents and analysis of the poems, which have been analyzed to show that Susan’s name had often been erased. But the film’s arch, winking tone relies too much on humor and stiff line readings to reveal the artifice inherent in the myth of Dickinson. This ironic style distances the viewer. Despite the juicy details and fascinating topic, it’s disappointing that the stilted tone makes it so difficult to connect emotionally with this important story.
‘Wild Nights With Emily’
Rated: PG-13, for sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes
Playing: Starts April 12, The Landmark, West L.A.