Wild Nights with Emily

This dramatization of Emily Dickinson's life is made with the express purpose of debunking all the tired myths that the 19th century Massachusetts poet was a joyless recluse, not interested in being published, and heterosexual. Indeed, the film asserts, over and over, that Dickinson's 40-year relationship with her sister-in-law Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson was fully loving and sexual, all the way up to her final years (Dickinson died at 55).

Writer/director Olnek makes a convincing argument, and I see no reason to refute her stance that Dickinson was a lesbian and was quite confident about it. And Olnek's screenplay, based on her own stage play, is actually quite good. Unfortunately, her direction is awful: the staging of camera and cast is strictly rudimentary, and the cinematography, credited to Anna Stypko and at least two other DPs, is uninspired. This is a film about one of history's greatest poets, for pity's sake. Shouldn't it look at least a little poetic? Compare the film's flat visuals to Terrence Davies's own recent Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion, or Jane Campion's swoony portrait of John Keats, Bright Star.

Of course, those aforementioned films had budgets of some $7-8 million apiece, whereas Wild Nights with Emily looks like it was shot for less than $100,000. I know from experience that the limitations of low-budget filmmaking can rear their ugly heads in unexpected ways: shooting much of Wild Nights in historic properties (but not Dickinson's house), perhaps Olnek and company were not given the time or permission to use anything beyond the most basic of lighting and camera setups. Nevertheless, Wild Nights is distractingly cheap-looking, and it wouldn't necessarily have cost anything extra to have shot and lit the film creatively.

As Dickinson, Molly Shannon is blameless. I've always liked her work, not only as a comedian but as a dramatic actress, and she acquits herself well, as does Susan Ziegler as Dickinson's lover. But the supporting cast overacts to a cringeworthy degree. I take it that Olnek directed them to be uniformly buffoonish and unrealistic – a bunch of squares who wouldn't recognize true poetic talent if it bit them on their villanelles – but Dickinson's hopes and frustrations would have felt more real if the film took the people in her orbit more seriously.

As a filmmaker, I have found myself accused, now and then, of writing a good screenplay but directing it poorly. The complaint would strike me as absurd: as the writer/director, my vision on the page remains my vision on the screen, right? But Wild Nights with Emily is testament to the unhappy truth that not all good screenwriters make good directors.