The first thing one notices about this biopic on American poet and writer Emily Dickinson is the casting of Saturday Night Live’s Molly Shannon in the time role of the adult Emily Dickinson. Dickinson was a serious poet and even more serious a person, avoiding contact with the outside world for the most offer life. The opening scene where Emily (Shannon) and Susan embrace falling on the floor as a result an over-compassionate kiss is obviously played for laughs. The biopic of poet and author Emily Dickson is thus treated with some biting humour. It is ambitious and challenging for the filmmakers to make a deadpan comedy on the life of serious Emily Dickinson.
The film is part bio as re-enacted by the actors as directed, but the bio pic should be taken with a grain of salt.
The film begins with Emily in her teens, played by not Molly but by someone younger, Dana Melanie, in love with Susan Gilbert. The two met during a recitation of the Amherst’s Shakespeare Society, and during a scene in which they play lovers, a romance blossoms. On a stroll afterwards, they kiss. Emily’s family leaves for a month long trip, and Susan stays with Emily for the duration. They continue to spend time together, concealing the romantic aspect of their relationship from others.
Susan gets a teaching job out west, and they write countless love letters to each others while she is away. When she returns, Emily is surprised to learn that Susan has been betrothed to Emily’s brother Austin, which Susan had kept secret from her. Susan apologizes to Emily and explains that it’s all part of a greater scheme: Susan cannot financially support herself without getting married, and by marrying Austin they can build a house right next door to Emily and no one will suspect their romance.
The dead pan comedy ends up irrelevant at times and sometimes a bit funny and at other times not. One has a possible publisher and his wife slurping tea loudly when served by Emily. Another has Emily saying that she would listen to what a speaker would say, and the scene moves to this person mumbling under his breath all the way. The most irrelevant has Emily and Susan engaged in a discussion in bed just before Emily says’ “I have a desire for a strawberry”, before reaching out for one and eating it.
Odd too is the ending with Emily talking to another corpse in the adjoining room. They have a discussion with the dead balks man asking her Why’d you die?” The she replies ‘For beauty!”, he replies “him for truth.” The meaning of what is occurring will escape many. Or perhaps that is the purpose.
Weird does not automatically translate to smart or deadpan funny as evident in this biopic that ends up more like WEIRD NIGHTS WITH EMILY.