The postscript for director Madeleine Olnek’s new biopic Wild Nights with Emily states: “Notions persist to this day of Emily Dickinson as a spinster old maid who was afraid to leave her room or publish her work.” After 80 minutes of arguing otherwise, depicting the profound love between Dickinson (Molly Shannon) and her sister-in-law Susan (Susan Ziegler) at various stages of their lives, Olnek closes the book on the subject by showing the actual letters exchanged between the two.
This image of Dickinson exists in stark contrast with the one ingrained in academia and popular culture over the last century. As Rachel Handler notes in her discussion with Dickinson scholar Martha Nell Smith, “Even as recently as three years ago, Terence Davies’s movie A Quiet Passion portrayed Dickinson this way: a lonely woman wracked with vulnerability, in love with a married reverend and, as she grew older, profoundly unable to confront the outside world.” If both A Quiet Passion and Wild Nights with Emily are telling the same story, occasionally even depicting aspects of Dickinson’s personality in a similar manner, why are they so different?
The best filmmakers know that there’s no one way to depict a real life or story. Todd Haynes, for instance, breaks down Bob Dylan into a number of identities in I’m Not There, using Dylan-inspired characters to explore the myths around behind the man rather than the man himself. Others, like Bertrand Bonello, rebel against established stories, creating “unauthorized” works to immortalize their subjects. His 2014 film Saint Laurent explores the good and bad of both Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé. Meanwhile, Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent (also released in 2014) was approved by Bergé himself and gives both him and Saint Laurent a much more flattering portrayal.
Wild Nights with Emily exists in a similar space to Bonello’s film, with both determined to rewrite the sanitized histories of well-known figures. These movies have no shame in presenting their characters as sexual beings, while their respective biopic counterparts couldn’t care less about that element. Yves Saint Laurent would rather shame its protagonist for having sexual desires outside of monogamy, while A Quiet Passion simply ignores those desires, creating an image of celibacy and tortured loneliness.
Olnek and Davies are vastly different filmmakers. Olnek is a proud queer woman whose debut feature was titled Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same, while Davies is a queer man who once told an interviewer: “I have hated being gay, and I’ve been celibate for most of my life.” Olnek’s portrait of Emily Dickinson feels modern in every way. It frequently breaks the boundary between story and storyteller, directly critiques those who erase and manipulate history, and celebrates a romance between two women openly, from their first kiss to their last touch.
But Davies’ style of haunting, deeply personal cinema, grounded in his own suffering more than anything else, is no less queer; it’s just that his queerness manifests in a far different form than Olnek’s. While he can be critiqued for entirely ignoring Emily and Susan’s letters, A Quiet Passion is impacting in its own way. As Michael Koresky notes in his book on Terence Davies (an excerpt of which is featured here), “The beauty that emerges from such pain reveals a method of re-appropriating the past that we might call ‘queer’ in the way it reconstitutes shards of Davies’s cultural and familial detritus into new forms.”
Where Olnek’s Emily and Susan seem aware of the future, Davies’ Emily (Cynthia Nixon) exists almost frozen in time, trapped within a perfectly mounted and produced capsule of an era. His identification with Dickinson’s sense of longing, her questions of faith and identity, and yes, even her sexuality (however conservative the film might be on that front) makes for compelling storytelling. Her poetry and life become something to appropriate, a device with which to meditate on Davies’ own insecurities about his career, recognition, love, and death. His pain becomes hers, and upon viewing, it becomes our own.
A Quiet Passion and Wild Nights with Emily are both fictionalized spins on real events. While one can be said to be more accurate than the other, both are great, expressing Emily Dickinson’s intelligence, sense of humor, and melancholic poetry in unique ways. Rather than pit them against one another, they should be taken as complementary depictions of different facets of Dickinson, each driven by marvelous performances. In interpreting a life through fiction, emotional truth matters more than the plain facts. Whatever information was left offscreen exists in archives, biographies, and the poems and letters we can read. What’s onscreen are two beautiful, unique, queer tales of a woman whose life and poetry was simultaneously uplifting and somber, as witty as it was wistful.