"Wild Nights with Emily" is a silly, then sobering, episode of "Drunk History"
Over the course of almost 1,800 poems, the prolific Emily Dickinson told her life story – and history still got it wrong.
At least, that's according to the 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival's centerpiece selection "Wild Nights with Emily," an amusingly irreverent riff on the period biopic with an unheard (though potential more historically accurate) take on the famed poet's life: that the cold reclusive spinster was actually a vibrant, loving woman held captive more by the era's gender norms than any social fears.
It's an unfamiliar angle, albeit told in an oddly familiar style and tone that feels less like a missing chapter of literary history and more like a missing episode of "Drunk History" – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
Played in a rare and welcome comedic turn from indie queen Amy Seimetz ("Upstream Color"), Mabel Todd isn't drunk – at least not on booze, maybe on jealousy – but she's no less trustworthy as she narrates Dickinson's posthumous life story to a room of gossip-gobbling socialites. As she regales the crowd with Emily's darkness and dreary loneliness, writer-director Madeleine Olnek undercuts Todd's tales with cuts back in time to the warm, pleasant Dickinson (Molly Shannon) as she bakes bread for the town children and kindles a playful secret romance with her sister-in-law Susan (Susan Ziegler).
All the while, Dickinson writes her moving works on whatever's on hand (see: that bread recipe from before) in the modest hopes of getting published by the dopey male gatekeepers at literature's forefront – like Brett Gelman's exquisitely smarmy Higginson, who mangles Dickinson's iconic prose and would be the first one to tell you that he's a champion for women. ("The 19th century is the woman's century," he declares before rejecting Dickinson for being too much too soon.)
In lazier hands, casting a big, broadly comedic "SNL" star as the quiet, cloistered poet would be content as a joke in its own right and maybe serve as an invitation to mug. Shannon, however, tones it down with a modest but still hilarious and bouncy wit, making the audience cackle with simple looks and glances – such as while she's attempting to silently interpret the mumbles of a dreary Ralph Waldo Emerson.
She also crackles and flutters with her romantic co-star Ziegler, the two creating a sweet, warm and yearning heart beating underneath a movie that spends most of its screen time dryly refusing to take much in its buttoned-up world seriously.
And there is something freeing and breathy about an ostensible biopic – a genre filled with Oscar bait dramas tied into a crushing corset of facts, research and import – just not caring all that much about pretense. Actors talk and behave with casually modern cadences and reactions, and Olnek takes an earnest, decidedly modern askew chuckle at Dickinson's world of prim manners, ponderous poetry (Helen Hunt Jackson takes a noteworthy jab) and layers upon layers of poofy gowns failing to keep everyone behaved.
There's such a sense of nonchalant freedom from textbook stuffiness that you half-expect Olnek to reveal a hammered comedian actually telling the story, slumped on a couch, gigglingly grasping for words … and maybe the garbage can too, just to be safe.
Unfortunately the "Drunk History" vibe isn't limited to the goofy, airy take on history. "Wild Nights with Emily" also shares its visual style – or utter lack thereof. Other than the period-accurate poofy dresses, the rest of the film's look is flat and small, confirmed to drab locales and bland camerawork. The cheap reenactment look works for the Comedy Central show because, well, they're supposed to be bad, a spoof of the gauzy glimpses of history seen in the kind of bad education docs the teacher pops on when they're too tired to teach.
Here, however, as the core of a film – and without the frame of an inebriated comic to set the mood – the visuals just look cheap and dead-eyed, lacking the emotion, vibrancy or pop of Dickinson's work or the life "Wild Nights" proposes for her.
Plus, for a movie trying to expose the poet's grander life, freedom and feelings, it's a shame the film still feels so small and claustrophobic, constrained to a few underdressed locales shot in flat, half-hearted compositions.
Combine the airless visual approach with the script's irreverent sense of humor, and you get an entertaining enough movie that feels like there's air quotes around it – an odd tonal approach for a movie that, by the end, is attempting to reclaim the reality of its main character's life. The ending in particular takes this feature-length "Drunk History" reenactment on a sobering turn, literally watching queer women erased from their own story.
After 70 minutes in its funny, flimsy faux world, "Wild Nights with Emily" doesn't quite earn its painfully real ending and reclamation. But after centuries of being misunderstood, Emily Dickinson certainly does.
"Wild Nights with Emily": **1/2 out of ****
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