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August 03, 2012

Movies You Missed 50: The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister

Anne-listerThis week in movies you missed: What if a Jane Austen character were a lesbian?

What You Missed

It's 1815. Anne Lister (Maxine Peake, of the UK show "Shameless") is the heiress to a great Yorkshire estate, where she lives with her aged aunt and uncle. Like all eligible single ladies in Regency England, she has love on her mind — but only for the "fairer sex," as she puts it in her diary.

Anne's passion is for the lovely Mariana (Anna Madeley), but their relationship ends when the latter accepts the proposal of a portly gentleman with a ton of money. Anne courts a cute tradesman's daughter she meets at church, but finds her "stupidish." She takes to wearing black and accepts amorous consolation from her loyal friend Tib (Susan Lynch), for whom she feels nothing.

But then Mariana reappears in Anne's life, promising a future together after her husband drops dead, as he surely will, from excess pork chop consumption.

Should Anne hold out for true love? Or assuage her sorrows by digging a lucrative coal mine in her backyard?

Why You Missed It

Anne Lister is a BBC drama that aired in 2010. I'm guessing you could have caught it on BBC America, as well, but it doesn't seem to have been a huge hit.

Should You Keep Missing It?

Anne Lister was a real person who chronicled her life in 4 million words of diaries, much of them (the naughty bits) written in code. Her story is a fascinating piece of lesbian history and of history, period, that tramples on our view of 19th-century women as demure creatures waiting around to be married.

However, I got most of that story from the hourlong BBC documentary that accompanies Anne Lister on the disc as a special feature. It's a good watch, though the host, lesbian comedian Sue Perkins, takes an approach that some may find akin to History for Snickering Middle Schoolers. (She refers to Lister as a "sexual nutcase" and the church as her "ecclesiastical pickup joint.")

The movie itself is fine — gorgeous looking and well acted, like virtually all BBC productions. It's just a little dull. Peake does convey Anne's snobbism, her aggressive side, and the way she took on masculine mannerisms to court women, while also capitalizing on the era's conventions of female friendship. (As the documentary clarifies, in the early 19th century, no one looked twice at women walking down the street arm in arm. Friendships were intense and sentimental, a convenient camouflage for same-sex romance.)

But too much of the movie consists of Anne pining for her beloved Mariana, who we just know is going to string her along forever. The drama asks us to root for Anne as a feminist heroine, but the real story, as told by Perkins, makes her a far more ambiguous — and interesting — figure.

This is a woman who seduced a vulnerable schoolmate when she was in her early teens, only to abandon her as a social inferior. This is a woman who commandeered a church for a private ceremony that was (whether the pastor knew it or not) a same-sex marriage. Neither of those things happen in the film.

Nearly as fascinating as Anne's own story is the story of what happened to her diaries after she died. The first relative to discover and decode them, in the 1890s, kept them under wraps partly because he feared someone would discover his own homosexuality. Not till the 1980s would Anne's full story (naughty bits included) be known.

Verdict: It's OK. But for the real story, watch the doc, and read Helena Whitbread's bio and the diaries themselves. You'll never look at Jane Austen the same way again.

Other New Releases You May Have Missed

  • 96 Minutes (Brittany Snow is involved in a carjacking!)
  • ATM (Kids get trapped in an ATM vestibule with a psycho outside!)
  • Cyberbully (Teen finds trouble online!)
  • Detention (Teen finds a psycho killer in detention!)
  • "Hatfields & McCoys" (Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton go to war, hillbilly style!)
  • Last Fast Ride (Doc about Bay Area punker Marian Anderson)
  • Le Havre (Crosscultural drama from Aki Kaurismaki)
  • LOL (OMG, Miley Cyrus playing to her base!)
  • We the Party (LA high school drama from Mario Van Peebles, presumably with no killers in detention)

Each week in "Movies You Missed," I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.)


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