“In Madeleine Olnek’s Wild Nights With Emily, the life and work of Emily Dickinson are subject to a delightfully droll—even gay—reinterpretation. For believers in the legend of the hermetic poet who never left her bedroom, it may come as a surprise that the Emily (Molly Shannon, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) of Olnek’s film is not a melancholic recluse, but the heroine of a romantic comedy.
Olnek’s version of events is supported by studies of Dickinson’s poems which revealed that references to possible lovers were covered up. Historians debate the meaning of such findings, but Olnek’s film is free of equivocation. Her Emily is a woman who loves women, and her film details one version of how her life might have differed from her legacy.
The film is largely narrated by Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz), who assembled and edited the first posthumous collection of Dickinson’s poetry. A faithless reader—and, notably, the mistress of Emily’s brother—Mabel erases Emily’s dashes and scrubs out the poet’s loving dedications to her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert (Susan Ziegler). As Mabel presents a sanitized version of Emily, Olnek undercuts her account with scenes of Emily and Susan in love, in bed and in correspondence.
The tension between what we see and what we hear of Emily’s life provides the film with much of its levity. As the gaudy, pink-clad and ill-tailored Mabel delivers her chaste accounts of the Dickinson household, Olnek gleefully cuts to scenes of petticoats and hoop skirts akimbo. This is an irreverent film, but its lightness is meaningful. With each silly flourish, Olnek offers joy and companionship to a figure whose history was more conveniently presented to generations of readers as solitary.” (Teo Bugbee, The New York Times)
“Molly Shannon is brilliant and warm as the literary icon.” (Jude Dry, IndieWire)
“This is a great example of Olnek’s style. It’s respectful, but it’s also alive. It’s serious, but it’s also tongue-in-cheek. Olnek’s approach gives Emily room to breathe. At last.” (Sheila O’Malley, RogerEbert.com)
“The film’s playful tone is a corrective to a century of scholarship that insisted on projecting the image of a moody spinster onto Emily Dickinson.” (Pat Brown, Slant Magazine)