Emily Dickinson isn’t exactly the kind of literary figure one would expect to be prepped for the biopic treatment: she was an elusive, unloved shut-in, after all. Or was she? ‘Wild Nights With Emily’ is a pitch-black comedy that challenges the way we remember important figures in history, and how the actions and words of others can impact their legacy. Biopoics that highlight how different perspectives and memories can change how history is remembered are not a new concept, and the idea has been mastered as recently as last year's excellent ‘American Animals’. Unfortunately, 'Wild Nights' is never as compelling as its subject matter implies it would be.
A flashback narrative amplifies both the comedy and the tragedy of Emily’s life, a talented poet ahead of her time in a world where men weren’t interested in her work, and her perceived one. We see her story told to strangers by her brother’s airhead mistress Mabel (a hilarious Amy Lynne Seimetz, ‘Lean on Pete’). However, instead of focusing on her work, the film instead focuses on their inspiration; her torrid, long-term love affair with best friend and her brother’s wife, Susan (Susan Ziegler, ‘Lying in Wait’). It sounds like a messy love web, but it plays out with such simplicity that the mind has plenty of time to wander – not something you want from a film clocking in at under an hour and a half. Molly Shannon (TV’s ‘Saturday Night Live') plays the titular Emily, pleasant as always but never elevating the role beyond your standard interchangeable Molly Shannon performance.
Unfortunately, 'Wild Nights with Emily' is never as compelling as its subject matter implies it would be.
‘Wild Nights’ does a great job of working Emily’s poems into the narrative, a nice touch to honour the misunderstood protagonist, and remind audiences of why her work is still so loved to this day. It mirrors the narrative and the intent behind each piece – not the ones Mabel gives them – presents itself. Despite the good script and comedic timing of the supporting cast, ‘Wild Nights’ is let down by its presentation. The costumes and set design are wonderful, yes, but they are hampered by awful lighting and cinematography. Much of the film feels like a ‘Drunk History’ episode and holds the film back from shining visually.
I’m convinced that a much better film exists in within the DNA of ‘Wild Nights with Emily’, but the one we are given is far from awful.