Of all the films that I expected to see at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this year, a camp, historical re-telling of Emily Dickinson’s life as one that was dominated by a secretive lesbian affair was perhaps the one that surprised me the most. Wild Nights with Emily is directed by Madeleine Olnek – the woman that brought us the deliciously ridiculous Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same – and I’m pleased to say that this lovely challenge to the traditional misconceptions surrounding Dickinson’s personal life, which often paint her as a lonesome recluse, contains much of the same outlandish humour and eccentricity found in Olnek’s earlier work.
When I first entered the screening of Wild Nights with Emily, I expected to laugh, and laugh I did, but what I did not anticipate was leaving this film with such a sense of poignancy and a need for reflection. Wild Nights isn’t only the fun, playful romp it promised to be – it is also a touching re-examining of the life of a woman who was denied true success in her own time and whose desires were erased from the narrative constructed by others around her life. Olnek’s film seeks to bring to light the relationship shared between Emily (Molly Shannon, on fine form here) and the woman that she dedicated a great many of her poetry to, Susan (Susan Ziegler), and in doing so, it reminds us that history is not always objective.
Historians choose the stories they will tell, and, in the case of Emily Dickinson, they have often chosen to neglect the fact the letters written by her to Susan were filled with declarations of affection and the kind of longing usually found in correspondence between lovers. Wild Nights depicts the development of Emily and Susan’s relationship with such delicacy that it is impossible not to be totally charmed by their love, as Olnek charts their progression from girlhood friends to adult women engaged in an affair that would consume almost the entirety of Emily’s life. As this is a comedy there are, of course, moments of wild exaggeration, such as in Susan and Emily’s passionate clenches and in the portrayal of the Dickinson’s nosey housekeeper, but none of this absurdity ever takes away from the tenderness with which Emily and Susan’s relationship unfolds.
As Emily, Shannon shines as a deeply intelligent woman denied her own agency and robbed of recognition for her work by the misogynists around her, and she does a wonderful job of helping the audience to dispel the widespread idea that Emily was a passionless spinster. Ziegler, too, deserves praise for her portrayal of Susan – a woman deprived of the right to publicly disclose the life-long love she shared with her best friend. The performances on display from Shannon and Ziegler are fundamental in elevating Wild Nights to more than just frivolous fun and in making it into a rather sweet, surprisingly emotive depiction of a love that was selectively stamped out by historians.
Wild Nights with Emily is not necessarily a perfect film, I feel that perhaps it could have benefitted from a slightly longer run-time to allow us to fully immerse ourselves in more of Dickinson’s poetry, but it has rapidly become one of my favourites from EIFF. Olnek has crafted a lovely, heart-warming piece which reminds us of the importance of revisiting and challenging historical narratives and leaves one in both fits of laughter and in need of a few moments of contemplation following the bittersweet, poignant note on which it ends.