The Lesbian Movie Marathon: The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Directed by James Kent and written by Jane English

I was pleasantly surprised by this beautifully filmed drama based on the life of nineteenth-century diarist, Anne Lister (1791 – 1840).  Some parts of Lister’s diaries are written in code which, when cracked, was found to contain remarkably frank descriptions of her romantic involvements and sexual relationships with women. This all rather demolished the idea that unmarried women necessarily had little access to knowledge about sex or lesbian culture before the twentieth century.  It’s apparent that, not only Anne, but also the locals who called her “Gentleman Jack”, had a very good idea of what she was about.  The Lister diaries suggest that there was a well-developed discourse about lesbianism which was available, at least to upper-class women, as a way to understand themselves in the nineteenth century.

One of the most refreshing things about this drama is that it doesn’t make concessions to the straight audience: it doesn’t explain, or apologise, or dumb down the lesbian representation, but nor does it use the lesbian theme to titillate the viewer.  There is one sex scene which I thought very well done.  This may be because the producers were aware that only lesbians and people already interested in the history and literature of the period would be likely to watch it, so there wasn’t much point in trying to entice a wider audience.  It was cast thoughtfully with actresses who made credible nineteenth-century lesbians, and I was particularly pleased to see that thought had gone into how a butch lesbian might have presented herself during this time.   Maxine Peake played Anne with tomboyish energy and great charm, Anna Madeley, as her long-time lover Mariana, was believable as a woman caught between her sexual desires and the life she has chosen as the wife of a wealthy man.  Susan Lynch was excellent as Anne’s hard-drinking ex-girlfriend ‘Tib’ who’d still like to be more than friends.  Gemma Jones and Alan David were also lovely as Anne’s slightly bewildered, but ultimately accepting, aunt and uncle.

I really liked the film but found the documentary with Sue Perkins, ‘The Real Anne Lister’, even more fascinating.  In order to make the drama watchable for a modern audience, the writers modified what we know about Anne to make her appear a great deal more sympathetic than she was in real life.  As Sue Perkins reads the diaries she rather struggles to like Anne, who comes across as a terrible snob and not a particularly nice person.  For example, in the drama, her last relationship with the heiress, Miss Anne Walker, is sweetly presented, but in the diaries it seems a far more cynical arrangement based more on Anne Lister’s desire for a submissive wife and her need for money to invest in her mining projects.  Of course money and companionship were considered perfectly acceptable reasons for marriage in the early nineteenth century, but what is fascinating is that the two Annes do seem to have considered themselves married and even managed to get their relationship blessed by the church.  My own feeling is that Anne Lister probably had to become a rather ruthless person just to be able to live the life she lived in this period.

I would highly recommend this drama and the accompanying documentary for anyone interested in lesbian herstory.

Little link round-up

Happy 80th Birthday to Leonard Nimoy.  My mother loves Star Trek and has always had a crush on Mr Spock, which means that Leonard Nimoy has been a part of my life for about as long as I can remember.

From Four Reasons to Love Stargate SG-1. I only recently started watching Stargate SG-1 and am surprised by just how much I like it.

The Guardian Digested Reads pokes fun at the book version of Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe TV series.  Amazing!

From After Ellen, a very funny article about Lesbian film DVD covers and what they tell us about ourselves

From, actors who started their careers in SF

And Forbookssake says happy birthday to one of my favourite writers Flannery O’ Connor

Little link round-up

A bit of an eclectic mix this week:

My new favourite blog is Put on your Picardigan, a blog revisiting and reviewing Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

On a related note, a list of 46 Things you’ll never see on Star Trek.

Something completely different, The Johnny Cash Project in which people all over the world draw pictures of Johnny and submit them to this website.

For Books’ Sake – books by and for independent women.

Are these the worst lesbian movies ever?

Via A Piece of Monologue, The 50 Most Essential Works of Jewish Fiction of the last 100 years

From Bad Reputation, Check out my Ego: Aronofsky’s Black Swan. I’m going to have to see this movie now.

The Lesbian Movie Marathon, All Over Me (1997)

Written by Sylvia Sichel and directed Alex Sichel

All Over Me is a lesbian coming of age drama focussed on Claude (Alison Folland), a tomboyish 15 year-old girl who lives in an underprivileged area of New York known as Hell’s Kitchen.  She’s desperately in love with her more conventionally attractive (and definitely heterosexual) best friend, Ellen (Tara Subkoff).   The girls share a symbiotic relationship that will be a painful reminder to a lot of lesbian and bisexual viewers of something we experienced as teenagers.   How many of us had this kind of relationship? The over-closeness and unhealthy power dynamic that underlies the relationship between the naively adoring young lesbian and the heterosexual girl who accepts that adoration as her due, and simply doesn’t understand why her friend is so upset by the appearance of a boyfriend, is beautifully drawn in this film.

Warning – some spoilers!

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The Lesbian Movie Marathon: Fire (1997)

Directed by Deepa Mehta

An independent-minded young woman named Sita agrees to an arranged marriage and moves to the city to live with her husband’s family, which includes his brother, Ashok, Ashok’s dutiful wife, Radha, Sita’s disabled mother-in-law, Biji, and the family servant, Mundu.   Her arrival soon acts as a catalyst, bringing the simmering tensions beneath the surface of family life to a crisis.

Sita discovers that her husband, Jatin, is in love with a Chinese woman called Julie who has refused to marry him because she doesn’t want to take on the role of a traditional Indian wife.  It becomes apparent that Jatin has only agreed to marry her under pressure from Ashok who wants an heir for the family because Radha is infertile.   Turning to a guru for consolation, Ashok has taken a vow of celibacy, but still subjects Radha to humiliating experiences in which he uses her to “test” his sexual control.

As Radha and Sita bond and then find themselves falling in love with each other, they also begin question the traditions that have shaped their lives and slowly start to stand up to their respective husbands.   Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das are brilliant in their roles as two passionate women trying to maintain their dignity in a degrading situation.   But there aren’t really any villains in the film; it shows that everyone in the family is trapped by tradition, which seems to be represented in the silent but vigilant figure of Biji who rings her bell loudly whenever she disapproves of anything.

This is a powerfully honest film.  It isn’t shy about the realities of life and some of the scenes are gritty and quite disturbing.   But it’s also beautifully shot and directed throughout.

The way the film uses Hindu mythology is very clever, reinventing the story of Sita, whose husband insisted that she be tested by fire to prove her purity.  It does have a bit of a “fantasy lesbian ending”, but after all the grittiness, that’s ok with me.

It caused riots on its release in India and was banned in Pakistan.

Fire is a brave, honest and passionate film that I’d highly recommend viewing.