Though the title suggests otherwise, Wild Nights with Emily‘s narrator Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz) did not in fact share any time with its titular femme – infamous American poet Emily Dickinson (here played with expected gusto by SNL alum Molly Shannon) – instead acting as the promoter that would earn Dickinson posthumous praise as one of the literary greats following her death.
She did share something of a relationship with Emily though, seducing her brother (Kevin Seal) away from his first wife (Susan Ziegler), who coincidentally happened to be Emily’s best friend. It’s a story worthy of a cinematic effort (here brought to the screen by independent filmmaker Madeleine Olnek) but, unfortunately, the tone and its use of over-exaggerated comedy doesn’t endear itself to audiences who aren’t prepared for its particular brand of humour.
It’s a shame that Olnek opted for an overt approach to the story given that the relationship depicted between Emily and her sister-in-law, Susan, is particularly sweet, heartbreaking even as it details their long-running friendship and eventual romance; the two try so desperately to spend time together, which ultimately explains Susan’s decision to marry Emily’s brother. Shannon is such a joy when her character gets to truly be happy, and more of that elation would’ve been appreciated. Instead, much of Wild Nights… is told through Mabel’s perspective and her bitterness at being the outsider looking in – Emily’s refusal to entertain Mabel essentially sealing the poet’s fate as being known as a “needy spinster” – means much of the film’s portrayal of Emily is in a negative light.
The film’s preoccupation with balancing its Victorian setting with feminism gags leads to an altogether uneven “comedy” that doesn’t even earn Dickinson’s own poetry a highlight; only sporadically do we hear the most minute of samples. Wild Nights with Emily could’ve been something truly biting if it fine-tuned its comedic outlook, or a work of beautiful tragedy had it opted for an organic approach but, disappointingly, it’s little more than a mild blip on the independent radar that should only really be sought out for the stunning work of Shannon whose proving her worth as a genuine talent outside the inflated comedy she’s known for.
Wild Nights with Emily is screening as part of the 2019 Melbourne Queer Film Festival. Session times and information can be found here.