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Wild Nights with Emily

The long-buried story of Emily Dickinson’s great love affair — and passionate pursuit of success — is now in theaters.

Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Metacritic score: 75

Wild Nights with Emily is a lot of things: A comedy, a historical drama, a romance, and a re-imagining of a woman familiar to and beloved by many. Molly Shannon plays Emily Dickinson, who — as relatively recent scholarship seems to indicate — had a lifelong love affair with Susan Gilbert (played by Susan Ziegler in the film), her youthful friend who also became the wife of Dickinson’s brother Austin. The affair was covered over and even literally erased by Mabel Loomis Todd (Amy Seimetz), who was both Dickinson’s first posthumous editor and Austin’s mistress. (Yes, it’s a little confusing.)

All of this provides writer and director Madeleine Olnek with ample fodder for a film about their relationship, which swings at times toward farce as the two women live next door to one another and try to hide their affair, with varying degrees of success. But in telling this story, Olnek also unseats another part of the Dickinson mythology, which suggests Emily was a lonely spinster who wrote her poems and shut them away. Instead, we see Emily sending out her poems and passionately pursuing success in her own lifetime. It’s a bracing, often funny reclamation of a famous woman’s life as her own — and one that, in the end, packs a true gut punch.

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