Emily Dickinson, that is.
This movie started and I was like: ugh. They’re really flaunting their teeny-tiny budget. This is a period piece but the costumes look rented and the sets are old (but not old enough) houses and the accents are atrocious and the props are vintage perhaps but certainly not antiques. But once I let go of my authenticity bias, I relaxed and could appreciate that no, this film can’t afford to look like an ethereal Austen period piece, but it does have something important to say.
Emily Dickinson was a brilliant American poet who was never published or recognized during her lifetime because her lifestyle was not “becoming.” In order to publish them posthumously, a narrative was created about her that has ever since called her a recluse, a virgin, a socially awkward spinster, which are all words attributed to women who just didn’t fit the mold. In reality, Emily had a passionate love affair with her brother’s wife, Susan. Many of her fieriest poems are dedicated to her – and name her. Traces of their relationship were of course literally erased from history in order to sell her poems to a conservative market. Dickinson was a woman ahead of her time in so many ways and this movie’s ambition is to have us reconsider the things we think we know about her.
Director Madeleine Olnek knows that letting Dickinson’s true flag fly may prove controversial, and that people generally don’t enjoy lectures about feminism, so she’s made a film that we can laugh at. And the best signal that this movie will be tongue-in-cheek is her casting of Molly Shannon as Ms. Dickinson. Molly gives Emily an energy and a joie de vivre that has been absent in our conception of her. But it’s clear from her poetry that Dickinson was in fact a woman of real passion – she loved and was loved. She was also constrained by her gender, class, and status, and all of those things have shaped our image of her. It’s only thanks to Susan’s daughter that we know of their great love and lifelong relationship, and to dedicated scholars who have uncovered the clues that were of course there all along. Don’t watch this movie if you can’t think outside the box. But do watch if you think the world needs more feminist, lesbian heroes – they’ve always existed, they just need our acknowledgement.