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Lesbian Movie Reviews: Died / Recanted / Unhappy/ Came out – The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister

Friday, April 15, 2016 - 08:00

This is a series of reviews of lesbian-themed movies originally inspired by a request for recommendations of "good movies involving lesbian romances that don't end up with the protagonists deeply unhappy, dead, or both." To this set of criteria I’ve added the question, “Is the story primarily about coming out?” This set of index questions can involve some spoilers, but I will usually only hide them for new releases.

Many of these movies are not currently in print. I'll link each to their entry for reference. But for those currently available, Wolfe Video [] is the go-to distributor for lgbt movies.

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The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister is a BBC costume drama (with all the production values and gorgeous location work that usually entails) based on the diaries of a wealthy early 19th century Yorkshire woman who--at least in the privacy of her diaries and her bedroom--was an open and self-aware lesbian. This movie necessarily condenses the details of her life down to a manageable hour and a half. In doing so it retains the major themes of her experience, but strips out the agonizing and tedious years of confusion, depression, and uncertainty that are laid out in the diaries themselves.

The movie opens on an idyllic picnic on the moors, where Anne frolics with her two closest friends: Marianne, with whom she is deeply and passionately in love, and Tib, who is more in the way of a fuck-buddy. Anne’s fantasies of eventually sharing her home with Marianne (currently made awkward by the fact that she shares the ancestral manor with her unmarried sibling aunt and uncle) begin to crack that evening when Marianne’s engagement to a rich older man is announced.

We see the slow, agonizing fracturing of their relationship as Anne clings to the hope of eventually realizing her dreams with a widowed Marianne, while Marianne tries to eat her cake and have it too, misleading Anne about the steadfastness of her feelings. But braided among this are Anne’s continued sexual relationship with Tib, Anne’s flirtation with an innocent and bewildered young woman she meets at church, and Anne’s personal and professional conflicts with another local landowner over developing coalmines on their properties, which leads him to begin slandering her over her sexuality. (Well, ok, I guess it’s not actually slander because the core of what he says is true.)

Around about the time that the final fracture with Marianne occurs, Anne has befriended another neighbor (Ann Walker), an unmarried young woman who recently inherited her own family estate and who shares her interest in developing their coal resources. This professional friendship develops into romance when the other woman is confronted with accusations of how her friendship with Anne Lister is being interpreted and decides to make the rumors into reality. The movie closes with a “what happened to them all” summary, noting that Marianne’s husband outlived Anne Lister, who died of a fever while on holiday with her new love in the Caucasus mountains.

So how does this measure up on the four key questions? When you’re dealing with a biopic that deliberately follow people to note how and when they died, I don’t think that counts as a movie-death. So no death, certainly not as “punishment” for being queer. Marianne recants, but she’s the only one who does. Anne spends a fair amount of the movie unhappy but ends up happy, which I think is what counts. Of the various woman-loving-women in the film, Ann Walker is the only one we see having a coming-out experience, and it isn’t a major focus of the plot. So all in all, I’d say this movie comes up a plus on all four categories.