The Secret Diaries of Miss Ann Lister... and the Silencing of the Lithuanian Lambs - A Movie Review

By Moira Sullivan, San Francisco
There cannot be anything more painful than to watch a lesbian falling in love with a woman who decides to leave her eventually for a man or for marriage. This happens to the main protagonist in the opening moments of Frameline 34's opening film: The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, directed by James Kent. We might have said to Ann (Maxine Peak): we told you so! But such is the hardship for a "woman who likes the ladies too much" coming from a small provincial town like Yorkshire and especially at the time when Lister lived, in 1791.

Ann falls in love with a doctor's daughter, Mariana Belcombe (Anna Madeley) , who without even telling Ann decides to get married to an ugly old fart.  She promises to write but of course she doesn’t. Initially and quite wisely, Ann wonders why she should even bother.

Love between women was just something that was not supposed to exist in 1791 and few suspected it save the women surrounding two women in love. So stealing away in the bushes to kiss was the only way.  But in time Ann Lister acquired the reputation of "womanizer", rather aptly put.

Ann Lister wrote in code in her diary and has been called Britain’s first modern lesbian. Mariana shows up in her life later and Ann must acquire the means to allow them both to live. But Mariana turns out to be a real pain, and Ann lets her go though she continues to turn up like a bad penny. Meanwhile as a landowner Ann is propositioned to sell her property dirt cheap, but refuses and later joins her land with her neighbor Ann Walker. The uptight little Yorkshires knows that land marriages between women are suspect, and this provokes them far worse than women hiding in the bushes stealing a kiss. An anonymous ad is put in the paper announcing their "marriage". They are ridiculed.
The cinematography of the Yorkshire countryside brings up vibrant colors of the rolling moors, and everything is in place for the class that this film is about in Regency England. This film, however historical it may seem with all the diary coding is quite contemporary. Women who own land together are still a real threat, and small provincial towns still exist. 

One need only look to the homophobia in the Baltic State Lithuania where last month 800 extra police had to patrol the first gay pride demonstration because of the safety element for the homophobes lining the streets.  A survey revealed that 75% of the Roman Catholic Lithuanians are against homosexuals. Lithuanian gay men and lesbians  have a hard time bringing home their same sex partners to mom and dad. The pressure to be heterosexual even when you are not is oppressive in this EU nation and former Iron Curtain country. 

The Secret Diary of Anne Lister and films of this kind continue to be made because homophobia continues to exist. The point is don’t look at tomorrow night's film as historical, the story is happening today. The repression of love between women and the insistence in upholding heteronormative traditions must be seen as a tyranny of the emotions, a  fascism of real and imminent desire.

For Movie Magazine this is Moira Sullivan, San Francisco.

© 2010 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 06/16/10
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