I never expected the best new queer film I’ve watched this year to be about Emily Dickinson, but Wild Nights with Emily was a balm for my heart.
Directed by Madeline Olnek and starring Molly Shannon, Wild Nights with Emily busts every myth about the great American poet. In this film, Emily Dickinson is no modest and maudlin recluse. Instead, it draws on a rich cache of primary evidence to depict Dickinson as she was: an ambitious queer woman with a biting wit.
Wild Nights upends the trope of the isolated, cruel genius, which has plagued other recent biopics about queer historical figures. Instead, Wild Nights depicts Dickinson’s lifelong love for her sister-in-law Susan Ziegler. Ziegler played the role of friend, lover, editor, inspiration, and intellectual equal for Dickinson. By showing how Zeigler was quite literally erased from Dickinson’s writing, Wild Nights skillfully reveals the homophobia inherent in depictions of queer historical figures as loveless and tragic.
I loved Wild Nights in part because it filled with me with the same giddy joy I felt as a college student when I discovered that there were plenty of queer people in the literary cannon; Walt Whitman, Truman Capote, and James Baldwin just couldn’t be out in my high school any more than I could. Wild Nights, however, also provided enough surprises and substance to hold my intellectual interest.
Thanks to Shannon’s performance and Olnek’s writing, Wild Nights is hilarious in a way that not only honors Dickinson, but also breathes new life into the lesbian costume drama genre. If you like movies about queer women, you may have watched many a frock flick. From recent films like Carol to older dramas like Tipping the Velvet, most of these films are charming, but they can also be predictable, twee, and one dimensional. At their worst, costume dramas about queer women get their emotional power from dramatic descriptions of homophobia that may be somewhat historically accurate, but certainly aren’t affirming. Wild Nights, instead, manages to make its characters feel contemporary while remaining true to the complicated situations they negotiated.
Wild Nights with Emily is a remarkable, groundbreaking film that never had a shot at getting its due. It played at Columbus’ Gateway Film Center for a measly 10 days. Nonetheless, I’m certain this film will live on like so many queer women’s movies before it. Stuffed onto library shelves and the recesses of streaming platforms, surely nerdy queer teens will find Wild Nights. I imagine them singing “Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me” to the tune of Amazing Grace, just like we once did. Their laughter will be all the more gleeful for knowing the truth about Dickinson.