The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister

This is another of my “held” reviews. I reviewed this film before it screened at the 2010 Frameline festival. At the time, I wrote a full review, which I planned to post just before the picture’s full release. More than two years later, it  still hasn’t been released. So I’m posting this now.

B Period drama

  • Written by Jane English
  • Directed by James Kent
Think of this as a lesbian Merchant-Ivory picture. It’s set in England in the early 19th century. There’s plenty of top hats, bustles, corsets, and very proper diction. You’ve got great British actors behaving in civilized and polite ways, while barely containing the passions on the inside.

Merchant-Ivory films (and their imitations) have always been about suppressed sexual feelings, so the form seems appropriate for a gay romantic drama. The idea seems, in fact, quite promising.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister doesn’t quite live up to that promise, but it’s diaryannelister a more than respectable effort. Miss Lister has a story worth telling, and screenwriter Jane English and director James Kent show grace and economy in the telling of it. (Besides, if someone is going to make a movie about very proper Brits, shouldn’t their names be Jane English and James Kent?)

A disclaimer of sorts: I saw this film on a DVD screener before it opened the 2010 Frameline festival. The version I saw was unfinished, missing some off-screen dialog, other sounds, at least one special effect, and even closing credits. I suspect the music was a temporary track. Subtitles occasionally told me what I should be hearing. The final film may be better than what I experienced. On the other hand, I may have overcompensated, so it could be worse.

English based her screenplay on the diaries of an actual highborn lady–one who never married. At least, Anne Lister never married a man. When we first meet Anne (Maxine Peake) she’s living with her uncle and aunt (brother and sister—they never married, either), and very much in love with the beautiful Mariana (Anna Madeley). It’s mutual, and Anne speaks of them running off and living together. Then Mariana marries an old man for his money, and Anne is left unsure where she stands.

Anne defies conventions enough to start rumors (which are, of course, all true), but the story isn’t about this courageous woman fighting society’s norms. It’s about a woman who must hide her love, and who doesn’t know if her love still loves her.

There’s nothing unique or troubling about The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (at least if you’re not a member of the religious right). But it’s an entertaining enough journey into a life with unique challenges, and into a time and place close enough to our own to be understandable, but far away enough to seem exotic.