Review: The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister

Review: The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister

Frameline’s San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival kicks off on June 17 with a new kind of period drama. Set in 19th Century Yorkshire, England, The Diaries of Miss Anne Lister is a must see for anyone who has ever wished that Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte had written a love-story about two women.  

Visually marked by lush green fields and picturesque stone mansions, the film is beautiful to look at. Yet, among the inhabitants of this seemingly fairy-tale world, courtship and marriage are a matter of business and convenience, and the “love that dare not speak its name” is relegated to a system of codes, both written and spoken. 

“Do you like the poetry of Byron?” Our red-headed heroine asks a young woman archly. The question is filled with double-meaning. To answer yes is to proclaim not only one’s romanticism, but one’s unconventionality, and it gets repeated a few times throughout the film. 

Having spurned heterosexual marriage, societal norms, and the “tyranny of fashion,” Miss Anne Lister (played by a wonderfully defiant Maxine Peake) determines that she must find a female companion with which to spend her life. This person seems to be Mariana—her longtime friend and companion. We are first introduced to the two lovers during the opening credit sequence as they kiss passionately in the woods. Trouble inevitably rears its head, however, when Mariana (Anna Madeley) becomes engaged to a much older, wealthy gentleman. Convinced that the marriage is a sham, Anne continues to pine for Mariana, and tries to win her back, despite warnings from her best friend, Tibbs (also a lesbian) that Mariana is stringing her along.  

Meanwhile, Anne turns to industrialist ventures to procure the means to her future financial security in the absence of a husband. She unflinchingly sets out to mine the coal on her estate, despite being bullied by her neighbor, the rakish Mr Rawson (Dean Lennox Kelly). This empowering proto-feminist proves that she can survive on her own, and it’s refreshing to see such an uncompromising female character, let alone a lesbian one.  

The film is directed by James Kent, with a witty, engaging script by Jane English. Based on the Helen Whitbread book, which uncovered the meaning behind the real diary of Anne Lister (it took a century to decipher) this film is sure to delight audiences for years to come.




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