After more than a century of no films about Emily Dickinson, we’ve been blessed with two within a few years. (Still not as many as Winston Churchill has received overall, but who’s counting?) Madeleine Olnek’s comedy Wild Nights with Emily focuses on the secretive, often-giddy romantic relationship between Emily (Molly Shannon) and her sister-in-law Susan (Susan Ziegler). Told mostly in contradictory flashback via a speech given by Emily’s first posthumous editor Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz), Olnek uses Dickinson’s original letters and poems as primary sources to demonstrate how Susan was promptly erased — in the literal sense of the word — from Emily’s writings, and thus from history.
Wild Nights is considerably lighter in both tone and cinematography than Terence Davies’ more autumnal biopic A Quiet Passion. Olnek’s film is photographed with the bright key lighting traditionally associated with comedies, and at times feels like a series of workshopped sketches. This is not a bad thing, and the brilliance of Nights’ cast singing Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death” to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” cannot be understated. Both films are ultimately howls of anger at how Dickinson’s work and life was regarded both before and after her death, but Wild Nights has got both jokes and Molly Shannon, so it wins.
Rated PG-13. Opens Friday at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.