Emily Dickinson once wrote “Best Witchcraft is Geometry,” and some have said this is an allusion to the mathematician Susan Gilbert, Dickinson’s closest friend and intimate love. The concept that Dickinson was passionately in love with Gilbert, who married Austin, Emily’s brother, is familiar now but hasn’t always been public knowledge. It is said that 276 poems traveled between Susan and Emily and further that Susan purposely chose to have a house just across from Emily’s own.
The film “Wild Nights with Emily” by playwright-director Madeline Olnek (which originated as a play) is an exploration of the Dickinson / Susan Gilbert relationship. Both Molly Shannon (from SNL fame) and Susan Ziegler are perfect as Emily and Gilbert respectively.
Though the film is comedic in tone it doesn’t shy away from genuine feeling or the pathos of Dickinson’s actual poems.
Emily spends her time feverishly running about, composing her verses on slips of paper. As soon as she sees Susan, Emily embraces her madly. This goes against the conservative and mainstream conception, held for many years, that Dickinson was a shy and retiring spinster. Emily and Susan are crazed with desire and much fun is had with this convention.
Shannon plays Emily in a slightly glib and bemused manner and this suits the actor well, while also poking fun at the idea of Dickinson as a shy and reserved wallflower who does not express.
Emily expresses all too well.
At times the film is like a New Yorker cartoon almost in the mode of “Midnight in Paris.” Austin (Kevin Seal) is out of touch with Susan though he is carrying on with the self-important and overbearing Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz).
Everyone is lost in their own narcissistic pursuits. The legendary Transcendentalist Emerson is portrayed as an overly serious mumbler who is impossible to understand.
Emily has no choice but to watch these absurdist episodes and then scribble away in her room. Shannon’s expression is wonderfully quizzical.
Along with the humor, there is also tangible poignance as Dickinson’s actual correspondence to Gilbert is quoted in the film. The poet is clearly driven by her intensity of feeling for Gilbert, but as much as Dickinson attempts full intimacy in verse, Susan Gilbert drifts away with only funerals for consolation.
This push and pull is echoed in Mabel Todd’s efforts to meet with Dickinson. “Why don’t you dress as Emily and then look at yourself in a mirror?” is Austin’s response.
In a dream sequence, Dickinson is shown in the company of a slave with the implication that both have been abused by disgusting actions and opinions.
The sound of Emily’s grave moving over her head blends with the scraping of Mabel’s pencil, erasing Susan’s name from hundreds of Emily’s poems.
Mabel is a jealous prude and her eraser is the sardonic last laugh, a sad blow to literary history.
In keeping with the poet herself “Wild Nights with Emily” is another eccentric film. It is a pensive hybrid of dark humor and feeling that will satisfy Dickinson fans while others can have the freedom to ponder her oddly stark yet spatial verses.
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org