There is an awful lot of comedic undercutting to dramatic tones in Wild Nights with Emily. This makes sense, as the film is billed as being a “dramatic comedy” which sometimes is known as a “tragedy”. Though, I’m not sure that I would go so far as to call the events here tragic. Heartbreaking matches, but so does heartwarming. Tragedy doesn’t always have to be dour and painful but the power of that word is a touch too strong in this instance. Dramatic comedy it is.
One such undercut involves the young Emily Dickinson (played later as an adult by Molly Shannon), in a speculative flashback enjoying the scenery of a field with her dearest friend and secret lover Susan Gilbert. The two teenagers express their fondness for one another, but not before two things occur. First, they clink beverage glasses. The sound, however, is not of glass, but of plastic. Whatever tenderness is about to happen has been thoroughly scored by this anachronistic deed. Now, the performances by the young and older couples carry innocent and romantic chemistry that flows so well that any misstep in prop design or sound can be overlooked. The movie excels at this, especially later on when a fake cat makes the same meow noise every few seconds.
Second, there is many an eye-gazing going on, among sweet prose and delightful conversation of yearning and affection. Though, this too is cut by a hesitation hanging above them. A pause of social etiquette and convention. A “proper” way of being. Earlier, when introduced to the young ladies, they are reading Shakespeare to a women’s book club. From off the page to out of their mouths, lines of love pour out only to be hampered ever so slightly by caution and awkwardness of living in a prim and “respectable” time period. This undercut actually works in favor of the film, adding a depth of awareness and an atmosphere of secrecy that is delightful to witness the actors perform against.
Molly Shannon’s take on Emily in her later years is one of vibrancy, light eccentricity, pride, and assuredness. No matter what roadblocks came her way (which she predicts so often) from male critics and editors and publishers, she would maintain her righteous writing, however stylistic, however “unconventional”, and however open. Shannon plays it up with calm shade, appearing to be patient with others but really giving them the eye when (not if) they step out of line. Men, am I right?
Wild Nights with Emily also has a penchant for understanding the most visual nature of the poetry Dickinson produced, going so far as to recreate and adapt a few as if they were movies of their own. Personally, I’ve always had a hard time with poems, so to see them expressed with life most cinematic was a joy. After one such reading, a character looks over at another and remarks “I don’t understand this,” or some such phrasing.
We don’t have to “understand” literally but feel absolutely.
The film is a splendid surprise and an equally happy achievement in erasing the erasures and righting some wrongs of the past. Unbalanced here and there but never lacking in confidence, unpolished most of the time but striking and bold all of the time. Rough around the edges certainly but coarse? Not at all.
You can’t make a tragedy without having had a laugh or two and you can’t appreciate the funny without getting through the sad.
RATING: 3.5 / 5
Wild Nights with Emily screens at The Broad starting May 10th (Friday) with an in-person Q&A featuring the director on the 12th (Sunday).