Wild Nights with Emily a Disservice to LGBTQ Rights

Wild Nights with Emily (2018; DVD 2020)
Directed by Madeline Olnek
Greenwood Entertainment, 84 minutes, PG-13 (implied sexuality)
½ star

I will not mince words. Wild Nights with Emily is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. It’s not just that it’s boring, though it is, or idiotic (ditto), it trivializes what might be an overlooked aspect of poet Emily Dickinson’s life. Scholars discovered altered letters that contradict the traditional view that Dickinson was a sociophobic recluse who died unloved. Actually, she may have had a deep love: Susan Gilbert, later the wife of Dickinson’s brother Austin. Evidence remains open to interpretation, but it’s probable that Emily Dickinson was a lesbian. She might also have had a brief affair with Kate Scott Turner.

Alas, director Madeline Olnek was unsuccessful in bringing to the screen this important revelation about Dickinson. We do hear Dickinson’s voice in letters and poems clearly aimed at her dear “Sue,” but any sort of nuance escapes Ms. Olnek. I suppose that is to expected from a director who gave us such deathless classics as Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seek Same. (Yes, that’s a real movie title.)

In the film, Susan Gilbert (Sasha Forova/Susan Ziegler) marries Austin Dickinson (Kevin Seal) in part so she could be near Emily (Dana Melanie/Molly Shannon). Austin did his expected duty of producing a few family heirs, then leaves Susan to her devices and immersed himself in an affair with (the married) Mabel Loomis Todd (Amy Seimetz), who became the editor of Dickinson’s poems after her death. Sue, in turn, beds Emily and helps her try to get her poems published. Todd never actually met Dickinson, but scholars suspect that it was she who altered some of Dickinson’s original words to make them more acceptable for mass market consumption and, not coincidentally advance her own reputation as a Dickinson expert.

You will notice that I have made qualified remarks about Emily, Sue, and Mabel. Olnek takes an Emily/Sue erotic relationship as a given. I have no issue with that; film directors often take liberties with biographical details. I do, however, take umbrage with Olnek’s attempt to make, in her words, a “dramatic comedy” that mixes humor and seriousness in seemingly random ways. The problem is simple: Wild Nights with Emily is neither funny nor convincing when it seeks to be informative. We see Sue and Emily steal a kiss in an upstairs bedroom, then grope each other, and tumble behind a bed like two teenagers in the backseat of a Fiat. Which was this, I wonder, the serious or the humorous part? I’d say the latter, but the comedy is so broad that it would take a TV laugh track to queue viewers.

Shannon portrays adult Emily as a cenerous worricrow. It’s as if she’s has stolen Rachel Dratch’s character of Debbie Downer, dressed her in crinoline, and given her a girlfriend. Ziegler is better as Susan Gilbert Dickinson, but she too falls prey to an insipid script that has her dispatching her children ‘round the clock to deliver mash notes to Emily. The only redeeming quality is that both Shannon and Ziegler are way better than Melanie and Frolova, who are so wooden as young Emily and Susan that one could get splinters from watching them. It might be not their fault; Olnek is fishing for laughs in scenes such as their rehearsal for a Shakespeare play, but comes away with an empty creel.

Empty pretty much describes most of the film. The scene involving a doddering Judge Lords mangling the title and details of Wuthering Heights is pretty funny, but I wish Austin’s wig had flown off–as it seemed on the verge of doing in numerous segments–as that would have been much funnier than flat insider jokes about Ralph Waldo Emerson, Joseph Lyman, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The real crunch comes in the last quarter of the film, when Olnek abruptly changes tone. Most successful dramatic comedies mix those elements throughout, but Olnek gives us two separate films that do not mesh. That is, after painting with (allegedly comic) broad strokes, she shifts to a didactic look at Dickinson’s altered letters and poems. She somehow got permission to film the actual documents and I can only conclude that no one from the Emily Dickinson House laid eyes on either Olnek’s theatre production that preceded the film or her screenplay.

Wild Nights with Emily is simply a bad movie. Though it’s a mere 84 minutes, it feels as long as Lawrence of Arabia. Even worse, it doesn’t even work as camp. If this one is on your Netflix queue, delete it.

Rob Weir

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