Wild Nights with Emily movie review: the poetess with the mostest

part of my Directed by Women series
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Wild Nights with Emily green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Like Drunk History but sober, a lively, arch, dryly comedic corrective to the traditional, heteronormative, patriarchal image of Emily Dickinson. Incredibly audacious and utterly delightful.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies by and about women, and especially about real historical women
I’m “biast” (con): absolutely nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
female director, female screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

It’s like Drunk History, but sober. Wild Nights with Emily is an absolutely brilliant, absolutely hilarious, stupendously ultradry sendup of a costume drama with the very serious feminist mission of setting the historical record straight — or, actually, setting it queer — on poet Emily Dickinson.

Ever just on the edge of toppling over into outright satire, this brilliant corrective, written and directed by Madeleine Olnek, gives us Molly Shannon (Fun Mom Dinner) as the legendary writer (with Dana Melanie as the teen version), but not like any sort of woman our culture has ever acknowledged before. Based on Dickinson’s own work — which also features here in illustrative voiceovers — as well as the book written by the niece who knew her well, this is a portrait not of a miserable, death-obsessed, reclusive, secretive spinster who hid herself and her work away from the world, but that a lively, spirited woman who longed for public recognition for her poetry and privately carried on a passionate romantic and sexual lifelong affair with her close friend and later sister-in-law Susan Gilbert (Sasha Frolova [Red Sparrow] as an teen, Susan Ziegler as an adult).

Wild Nights with Emily Molly Shannon
“Hmm… how to say ‘Men are obtuse morons’ in a way that’s so veiled and poetic that no man will get it?“

Ostensibly narrated by Amy Seimetz’s (Pet Sematary) Mabel Todd — the woman who initially brought Dickinson’s work to posthumous public notice, though heavily edited and redacted to suit her own purposes — her faux authority is constantly being flipped by Olnek’s arch dramedy-ization in precisely the same way that this utterly delightful movie hopes to smash the traditional, conservative, heteronormative, patriarchal image of Dickinson. Oh my god, the scene in which exasperated and bewildered Shannon, desperate not only for validation for her writing but for cerebral discourse with acclaimed intellects of the day, completely confounds the editor of The Atlantic Monthly (Brett Gelman: The Other Guys) who has no idea what to make of her and so falls back on the usual condescending-jerk routine, mansplaining poetry to her! Women will sympathize, and rage, and groan with recognition.

All kudos to the incredible audacity and adventurousness of Wild Nights with Emily. I love love love this movie.

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