Wild Nights With Emily

May 3, 2019

in Movies

Film (2018)
Written and directed by Madeleine Olnek

With Molly Shannon (Adult Emily), Amy Seimetz (Mabel), Susan Ziegler (Adult Susan), Brett Gelman (Higginson), Jackie Monahan (Adult Lavina), Kevin Seal (Adult Austin), Dana Melanie (Young Emily), Joel Michaely (Edward Dickinson), Sasha Frolova (Young Susan)

Pablo Picasso, The Weeping Woman (1937)

Pablo Picasso
“The Weeping Woman” (1937)

An outraged response to a recent film that purports to accurately depict Emily Dickinson’s private life.

“Wild Nights With Emily”: An Abomination
Guest review by Alfred Clemente, Ph.D.

Last evening, my wife Priscilla and I, along with dear friends, saw the film Wild Nights With Emily, a supposedly accurate rendition of the life of that extraordinary poet Emily Dickinson. We were all horrified at its nearly total idiocy. Ironically, a promotional review describes the film as “vibrant, irreverent, and tender—perhaps the closest depiction of Emily Dickinson’s real life to date.” Nothing could be further from the truth. When the lights went up, the word I wanted to scream out was “abomination.”

For the past two years, the poetry of Emily Dickinson has been an obsession of mine. In March, my article Rediscovering Simplicity and Sacredness in Emily Dickinson appeared in Boston Arts Diary. I did, obliquely, address the recent research that suggests Emily may have been more than the fabulously talented recluse of Amherst, but I put it this way: “…the hundreds of poems she composed grow out of a broader compass of feeling than thwarted love. She was a verbal trickster, a singing psychologist, a philosopher and a poet who, in a mere thirty years, sang the truths of life and death and beauty in an astonishing 1775 poems…most of them superb works of art—her mysterious and miraculous clarity, her magic and honesty and insight—enacted and re-enacted again and again.”

Wild Nights With Emily seems to be part of a shameless exploitation now afoot in contemporary pop culture. The film distorts, exaggerates, and falsifies the spiritual center of this brilliant poet, reducing her to a silly girl obsessed with non-stop necking with Susan, her brother’s wife—two goony young women who, scene after scene, athletically toss under rumpled sheets, and kiss and kiss, non-stop, often when Emily’s brother, Austin, is downstairs, cavorting with his mistress so energetically that chandeliers begin to vibrate.

If this pathetic movie were intended to be a comedy, it fails on that count alone. To reduce Emily Dickinson, a genius of near-Shakespearean dimension, to the caricature of a sex-crazed sister-in-law – while even her young nieces and nephews conspire daily to deliver love messages between Aunt Emily and their mother – shows that the director had no sense of art or truth or decorum.

Truly, even without the historical distortions, this is a horrible film, a blatant example of exploitation for what? Profit? It is a travesty of truth, honesty, and art.

Emily Dickinson, the brilliant poet of Amherst, deserves so much better.

Alfred Clemente, Ph.D.
May 3, 2019

Alfred Clemente teaches American literature at Fordham University. He writes academic materials, arts criticism, poetry, and fiction. He has recently completed a novel and has begun work on a study of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

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