“Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” wrote Emily Dickinson, and writer-director Madeleine Olnek has taken her at her word. Olnek’s film “Wild Nights With Emily” is a thing that should not work yet mostly does: a silly comedy seriously felt, about the Belle of Amherst’s lifelong romantic relationship with her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, and about the stodgy propriety of those who conspired to hide that relationship from public view.
There may be more biographical basis to this tale than you know and it matters very much that “Wild Nights” has the approval of Harvard University Press and the Amherst College Special Collections archives to use Dickinson’s poems and passages from her letters. At the same time, the movie stars comic actress Molly Shannon as the poet, and Olnek has gone on the record about her fondness for the prankish Web series “Drunk History.” Merchant Ivory, this ain’t.
And yet the movie’s humor is built on genuine emotions and on the irony with which two women may have managed to live secretly out in the open. “Wild Nights” bounces back and forth in time, and the early editing is pretty rough: We see the adult Emily (Shannon) and Susan (Susan Ziegler) maintaining their next-door-neighbor affair under the societal cover of womanly friendship, and we see the two discovering their ardor for each other in their teenage years (Dana Melanie as Emily and Sasha Frolova as Susan). We also keep jumping forward to a turn-of-the-century lecture given by the primly smug Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz), who has published much of Dickinson’s poetry and who claims to have known her well — even though they never met.
So there are at least six points of view here: Mabel’s unreliable view of Emily; our increasingly suspicious view of Mabel; post-Civil War society’s view of women writers; the director’s view of her two subjects; and their respective views of each other. Which sounds like horse-carriage gridlock in downtown Amherst but plays, once you get your bearings, with tart humor and widening empathy.
Those early scenes have a sketch-comedy feel, but Shannon creates a three-dimensional woman. Her Emily isn’t the neurasthenic recluse of the Dickinson mythos but a strong-willed, clear-eyed artist, scribbling her lines on the back of recipes when inspiration strikes. (In one scene, she literally pulls a poem out of her hair.) She can be cranky, passionate, jealous, wise — as can Susan, the love of her life. There’s a touch of Gertrude Stein to this Dickinson, a welcome if fanciful invention.
By contrast, Mabel’s ladies-club interpretations of Dickinson’s best-known works are hypocritical, heterosexual, and at times hilariously misguided. Mabel Todd was, after all — and this is fact — the mistress of Susan’s husband, Austin Dickinson, and she did heavily edit Emily’s poetry before publishing it, beginning in 1890, erasing words and passages she thought controversial. Only a century later did spectrographic technology recover the words under the erasures, including the name “Sue.”
“Wild Nights With Emily” began life years ago as a stage piece, and it’s at times as stylized as a cabaret revue: When the entire cast takes turns singing “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” you’ll know whether you’re in or out. Somewhat to my surprise, I found myself in. Beneath the japery and rough-edged filmmaking is an abiding love for the work — its passion and resilience — and respect for the women whose hidden lifelong language that work may have been. If Emily and Susan were in fact the “pair of nobodies” of whom Emily wrote, Olnek has advertised them with playfulness and care.
WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY
Written and directed by Madeleine Olnek. Starring Molly Shannon, Susan Ziegler, Amy Seimetz, Dana Melanie. At Kendall Square. 84 minutes. PG-13 (sexual content).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.