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Review: 'Wild Nights with Emily' plays with history

Molly Shannon plays Emily Dickinson in this comedic look at the poet's life and legacy

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Molly Shannon in "Wild Nights with Emily."

The life of poet Emily Dickinson is celebrated in "Wild Nights with Emily," a daffy comedic drama that gleefully takes the hot air out of conventional historical biopics. 

Writer-director Madeleine Olnek's approach is much more "Drunk History" than "Masterpiece Theater." At times it resembles a "Saturday Night Live" sketch — both in its style and its on-the-fly production values — but it presents a lively counterargument to Dickinson's reputation as a, in the film's words, "dear, sweet, spinster recluse poet." 

"SNL" vet Molly Shannon plays Dickinson with reverence for her character and a desire to make her a living, breathing person, not a stuffy figure from a history book. She grounds her Dickinson in an everyday relatability; one of the first times we see her writing, it's on the back of a gingerbread recipe.

Olnek plays up Dickinson's relationship with her sister-in-law, Susan (Susan Ziegler), Dickinson's rumored lover and the subject of many of her works. History has attempted to whitewash their relationship, resulting in a convoluted narrative around Dickinson's poetry. Olnek responds with defiance, attempting to right the wrongs surrounding Dickinson's treatment, and throwing others in her life — including foolhardy male editors who wouldn't work with her — under the proverbial bus.

English majors and literary fans will find it a scream, others will be mildly amused by its playful approach to history. But at the heart of "Wild Nights with Emily" is a real love for Dickinson's work and an attempt to properly re-contextualize her story. That, in itself, is noble. 

'Wild Nights With Emily'

GRADE: B

Rated PG-13: for sexual content

Running time: 84 minutes

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama