Movie review

I know, I know — you’ve seen “A Quiet Passion,” with Cynthia Nixon, and you think you’re good for Emily Dickinson biopics. “Wild Nights with Emily,” however, is a rather different thing with feathers. It’s a comedy-drama, with a sardonic Molly Shannon as the legendary poet of Amherst, and it presents something quite different from the usual Dickinson narrative: This Emily is no gentle-voiced recluse, but a strong-minded woman happily carrying on a sexual affair with her lifelong friend and eventual sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson (Susan Ziegler) and busily pitching her poems, with endless rapid-fire enthusiasm, to editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Brett Gelman).

Written and directed by Madeleine Olnek, “Wild Nights with Emily” is a bit much to take in at first; its early scenes, particularly one in which an irritated-looking Shannon is framed in a staring-at-the-camera close-up like she’s in a Wes Anderson movie, feel scattershot and overly arch. Eventually, though, the movie finds its rhythms, using as a framing device Mabel Loomis Todd (sly-voiced Amy Seimetz) telling, after Emily’s death, her own version of the poet’s life. Meanwhile, we see another version, in which Emily’s sister Lavinia (Jackie Monahan) is a crazy cat lady, Ralph Waldo Emerson is a hilariously unintelligible mumbler, and the reason Emily stays upstairs in her room is because she doesn’t want to interrupt frequent romantic trysts in the drawing room between her brother Austin (Kevin Seal) and the ambitious Mabel.

It’s a quick, funny movie — I especially enjoyed the “Yellow Rose of Texas” singalong (a nod to the theory that all of Dickinson’s poems can be sung to that tune; try it sometime) — that eventually has something important to say: that the myth of Dickinson as a “half-cracked, unloved recluse who was afraid to publish her work” is wrong, and that posthumous edits in her work and letters helped lead to this characterization. (Susan’s name, for example, was removed from some poems and letters.) And while the style of the movie works against the seriousness of that message just a bit, it still gets through. Olnek hits on just the right note for her film’s final moments: the resolute, nubby sound of an eraser on paper, rubbing something away but leaving the faintest trace behind.


★★★ “Wild Nights with Emily,” with Molly Shannon, Amy Seimetz, Susan Ziegler, Brett Gelman. Written and directed by Madeleine Olnek. 84 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sexual content. Opens April 19 at Pacific Place.