Wild Nights with Emilytransports us to the mid-19th century, when Emily Dickinson was writing prolifically, baking gingerbread for neighbourhood children, and thrilled by a passionate romance with, her friend and sister-in-law Susan.Directed by Madeline Olnek, Wild Nightsis a fresh look at one of the most prolific poets in American history. Told through the eyes of her own writing, this portrait of Dickinson is unlike any we have seen before. Often portrayed as a recluse who refused to leave her room, Dickinson has historically been viewed as an example of mental health issues who refused to have her writing seen by the world.
However, based upon new research, Olnek’s film shows her to be a woman of passion and vibrancy whose modern ideas of feminism were unconventional for her time. (In fact, the film even explains the reason for her decision to stay in her room was not out of agoraphobia but, rather, to avoid overhearing her brother’s sexual exploits.) As a result, the overall tone of the film is much lighter and humorous than one might expect. Given the decision for the script to focus on levity, it certainly explains the casting of comic veteran Molly Shannon in the role of Dickinson. While the selection of Shannon is unexpected to say the least, her performance is engaging, entertaining and allows her to explore her range as an actress.
However, the true value of Nightslies in its desire to point out how often history is skewered through our own lenses. Though Dickinson’s writing remains front and centre, the film shows that her brother’s mistress, Mabel, is the one that seems to control her story with the general public. As she explains the so-called inner workings of Dickinson’s mental state and life to others, Mabel’s biases and ambition filter the facts about her in ways that contradict reality. Instead of the vibrant woman of passion that is so evident within her writing, Mabel portrays Dickinson as a woman of pain and solitude. In many ways, it’s an excellent example of our tendency to spin stories to our own advantage.
Similarly, the film also shows the damage inflicted by a culture unwilling to allow people to share their own stories. Constantly running up against the conventions of a male-dominated society, Dickinson’s voice is often silenced, told that she simply ‘doesn’t understand’. Despite the fact that Emily’s poetry is believed to be of such quality that it ‘would be read 100 years from now’, few will give her the chance to speak simply due to her gender. (In fact, even the eventual publication of Dickinson’s works were edited by Mabel herself due to the fact that Emily’s ideas seemed so unconventional.) In doing so, the film points to the oppressiveness of a culture which limits people due to their differences and reveals the value in allowing them to speak from their souls.
In the end, Wild Nights with Emilyis surprisingly engaging, especially when one considers how our view of Dickinson has been skewed over the years. In that context, there still may be something for us to learn from Dickinson’s past that speaks to today.
Wild Nights with Emilyis currently available in theatres.